June 13, 2006
Executive Director's Column
Americans have much at stake when it comes to the success of our democratic principles and processes. Our challenges are increasingly complex as we grapple with foreign and homegrown terrorism within our national boundaries; rapid demographic and economic changes wrought by global forces; superpowers in the wake of the Soviet demise; environmental issues, privacy concerns and epidemics; and both the structural and human frailties of our political systems. In this context, some policy makers may think that participation in the arts is of marginal value, an escape or pastime to be held in abeyance while priority investments are devoted to more practical tasks. In fact, the benefits of learning and participating in the arts are as essential to the tasks at hand as ever. Chief among these benefits is the role of artistic experience in sustaining the unique values and practices of American democracy itself.
The dictionary tells us that democracy is about government by the governed, about voting, about freedoms of speech and of the press. However, all these institutions could be in place and we could still have a despotic, unfair, violent society rife with inequalities and hostile to minority voices. The founders of this country knew that democratic institutions alone would not make this nation great unless its people were “virtuous,” i.e., charitable and generous. Majority rule, they understood, could be tyrannous. With that concern in mind, they crafted the Bill of Rights to protect the voice of the individual, the voice of the Other. Even so, they knew it would only be enforced by a society whose members could be empathetic.
Creative writing, visual art, music, and especially drama all teach empathy. The arts help us understand perception. You learn that sometimes others perceive as you do and that sometimes you are in the minority. You learn that sometimes you just won’t be understood. It is through an arts experience that we can learn the importance of living where the minority is protected. We come to realize that all individuals–whatever majorities and minorities we inhabit at a given time–must work for that protection or it will not exist when we need it. The Greeks had it right with their logo for drama–the masks of comedy and tragedy. When we put them on, we see through the eyes of another. Empathy is what drives civil liberties. It’s what motivates people to perpetuate the kind of democracy we think of as American.
Whatever benefits the arts provide–and on this subject reasonable people can argue–it is better to have them than not to have them. The research of James Catterall demonstrates that students with high arts involvement perform better on standardized achievement tests, participate in more community service and report less boredom in school. Shirley Brice Heath’s research concludes that arts-involved students are twice as likely to win an award for academic achievement, four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair, and three times more likely to win an award for school attendance. Researcher Dennie Palmer Wolf observed that students creating an opera together showed more likelihood than students working together in non-opera settings to participate, to connect what they said to previous comments, to revise their earlier ideas, to constructively critique others, to link their comments to a theme raised by the group–and to increase these collaborative behaviors over time.
Such research supports the obvious logic that learning in the arts helps learning in the sciences and humanities. Children will do better on aptitude tests and learn subjects better if they have good arts classes, just as children will produce art better if they have good science and good humanities classes. The point is that students who have arts classes have advantages over students who don’t. Some children’s parents–often the parents with quality educations themselves, with professional employment and good incomes–have established community schools of the arts that supplement the arts offerings of public schools. Perhaps half a million children take classes in these schools, and many hundreds of thousands more children take classes from independent teachers. In addition, children’s museums have proliferated greatly in the last two decades (from 20 in 1985 to more than 400 today) where many children get arts experiences outside of public schools. This means that kids whose parents are knowledgeable about arts advantages and can afford them are getting the arts.
However, millions of kids whose parents are not so well informed or affluent, or maybe just got to this country, or whose parents for one reason or another aren’t that involved in their education don’t get the arts. And they won’t get them unless public schools offer them as part of the basic curriculum. And that is not fair. That is not democratic. We don’t institutionalize inequities in the kind of democracy we want to have. Providing all children with learning in the arts, empowering all children to learn is an essential part of democratic practice.
As James Madison said, “Education is the true foundation of civil liberties.” Education enables a child to earn a living, to adapt to a changing environment throughout life, and to draw upon all the benefits a citizen and a voter can realize in a democratic system. A good education empowers self-interest as much as it fosters empathy. Unfortunately, millions of our children do not even finish high school. A recent study in California found that 30% of all students drop out of high school, and that 50% of African-American and Latino boys drop out. Democracy cannot survive if statistics like these continue.
Arts education is not a cure-all, of course, but we know students like school better if they are taking arts courses. The Massachusetts Cultural Council evaluated its YouthReach activities–arts-based programs for the state’s most at-risk young people–and found that young people engaged in the program experienced increased life skills, self-esteem, and “personal self-efficacy,” which means that students believe they can learn and do well in the school system. Sure enough, in the year of the survey, 100% of high school seniors who participated in a YouthReach program graduated. Eighty-two percent of those students enrolled in college. The Ford Foundation found that students who participated in the Dallas ArtsPartners program demonstrated gains in a statewide reading test superior to a control group and that the program seemed to benefit students of every ethnic, socioeconomic or academic population. We ignore this information and delay acting on it at our collective peril. By limiting the availability of arts education in public schools, we face two dire consequences: risking our ability to produce the democratic society we envision; and progressively reducing the number of individuals who can envision that society.
President John F. Kennedy, at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in October 1963, exquisitely articulated the essential role of the arts in American democracy (excerpted below, visit http://www.cs.umb.edu/~rwhealan/jfk/j102663.htm for his full remarks). Frost had died that January, and Kennedy himself would be assassinated within a month. With the support of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, the NEA would be established by Congress in 1965, and under Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon, the NEA budget would increase at a rate unmatched before or since.
Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. … [I]t is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. … I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
…. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. …. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites…the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
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