Recently I read yet another article in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader about eliminating the arts from South Dakota schools. Evidently, when money gets tight, art courses tend to be among the first to be cut. This is a dangerous trend for at least two reasons.
First, art is intrinsically valuable and useful. When students in our schools take courses in the arts taught by serious, full-time art teachers, we should all feel privileged that those students are taking part in an ancient, universal activity that puts them in touch with aspects of human experience that other courses in the curriculum cannot address nearly as well, if at all. Doing art, and experiencing it as partakers, involve the whole person, not just a part of that person.
The second reason why we shouldn’t cut art courses has to do with the ways we learn and remember. Book learning is an extremely recent phenomenon. For most of our tens of thousands of years as a species, there were no books at all, and so learning had to be vastly more experiential than it has been since the invention of writing around 4,000 B.C., or the printing press, a mere eye-blink of about 500 years ago.
No doubt we still have a natural inclination to learn things in a hands-on, experiential way and not through concepts found in textbooks. Watch children listening to nursery rimes—they can’t help but learn with their bodies. Recent studies of the human brain have begun to have a significant influence on education, and many believe the new knowledge will eventually change the way children are taught. According to Howard Gardner, a neurologist, educator, and author of many books on learning and individual competence, each of us has many kinds of intelligence, such as verbal, spacial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, and interpersonal.
Each of these intelligences helped our distant ancestors adapt to the exigencies of early environments. For example, a spatial intelligence was needed for locating oneself spatially; a bodily-kinesthetic intelligence was needed for control of bodily movements; and an interpersonal intelligence was needed for discerning the moods and intentions of others.
As a teacher of literature and writing for over 30 years, and an artist-in-residence in schools in South Dakota and other states for over 25 years, I’ve noticed that some students who are otherwise average academically can create extraordinary poems and stories. Not only should these and other artistically-gifted students have access to art courses; curriculums should be designed so that no type of intelligence or way of learning is overlooked. Some students may learn nonverbally better than verbally. The point is that if a given student can’t grasp a concept in, say, a science class, that student may grasp the same concept if it is presented in a play, a poem, or a painting.
Art is not a mere pastime, it’s not a frill, and it’s not something that can be dropped from school curriculums with impunity. It belongs in our schools because it matters.