Art, Opinion

A Case for the Arts in the Future of Education

By Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

It’s trendy for Ministers of Education to come out boldly in favour of increasing the math and science taught in our schools. I’m in favour of that, but I’m also in favour of increasing—not decreasing—the amount of arts taught in our schools as well.

Let me start by declaring my own biases. I’ve been a math and science nerd all my life. My father was a geophysicist and one of the pioneers in the field of physical oceanography. I was usually at the top of my math and science classes (although sometimes one of my other math-and-science-nerd friends beat me by one place). My undergraduate degrees are in math and computer science and I hold the Chartered Financial Analyst professional designation. I am not what you would call an artsy type. Truth to tell, I have a hard time drawing a straight line with a pencil and a ruler.

But if you believe, as I do, that the techniques we use in education should be teaching students things that are most important to them and society, then arts have to be at or near the top of the list.

Part of my argument is traditional: the classical “liberal arts education,” inherited from the Romans. They depended heavily on the arts as well as geography, civics, rhetorical argument (persuasion), languages, and math and science. There’s a reason for advocating these things: they help create a well-rounded individual. In our era, people are increasingly narrow and hence increasingly ignorant of the ideas, thoughts, argumentation, logic and inherent value or beauty of ways of thought outside their narrow experience. This gives them a stilted, incomplete, biased, prejudicial and dangerous view of the world. As the great humanist psychologist, Abraham Maslow, once famously commented, “If all you have is a hammer, you tend to see all your problems as nails.”

But that’s only one part of the answer. Yes, it’s true that the outstanding scientists of history, from Aristotle to Galileo to Pasteur to Einstein, all had personal involvements in art, and drew great inspiration from it. However, let’s focus on the hard, pragmatic value of art.

I took art in high school only because it was required. Once I finished the course, I figured I was finished with art. In university, I took elective survey courses in the history of music, contemporary music, painting, sculpture, and dance. I enjoyed them more than I thought I would, and am glad I took them. But I never thought that art would be important to my professional life.

When I became a professional futurist and began speaking to large audiences, the ability to present things in an attractive, compelling and interesting way became vital. Form, colour, balance, perspective, complementary colours, and other things than any art student would have regarded as basic—all became things I had to learn, again. This time however, I learned them through painful trial-and-error, by buying and reading books, or by taking tutorials. I wound up spending my own time and money learning things I could have learned for free if I’d paid attention in high school art class.

But it goes beyond this trivial example. Recent research into evolution and the way the mind works now leads us to believe that art—music, paintings, dance, movement, sculpture, storytelling, and more—are powerful tools that can help students learn everything else. The relationship between math and music has been known as long as humans have taught each other, and the manner in which music can stimulate creativity in other fields has been known about as long. That’s one of the reasons why Einstein and (to take an example from literature) Sherlock Holmes both played the violin.

A PBS documentary called Something Inside Me went further, though. It described a small school called St. Augustine’s. Ninety five percent of the students read at or above grade level and 95% of them also met the New York State academic standards in all subjects. They were able to achieve these standards because all of their academic subjects, including math, science, history, and biology, were taught by infusing them with dance, music, creative writing, and the visual arts. Arts became the medium by which they learned the other subjects. The surprising thing about St. Augustine’s was that it was located in the poorest congressional district in the United States, the South Bronx in New York City. One hundred percent of its students were minorities, many or most of them came from single-parent homes, and their community was rife with drugs, gangs, violence, and AIDS. Yet the arts, when integrated as a teaching method instead of a mere academic frill, inspired students to learn and to achieve in an environment where that was rare and surprising. The sad part of the story is that St. Augustine’s closed for lack of funding.

Another remarkable school is High Tech High (“HTH”) in San Diego. It is a charter school, partly funded by the state of California, but also receiving monies from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Gary Jacobs family (Jacobs was founder of another high-tech company, Qualcomm). HTH is comprised of three high schools, two middle schools, and one elementary school and has no traditional subjects. Instead, all six schools tackle one big question a year about the world and humanity’s place in it as a project. They bring to bear all of the traditional disciplines, but do so in the pursuit of solving a particular set of important, relevant questions. The arts are central to their approach to these issues. Indeed, the CEO of HTH has been accused of running “an art school in disguise,” an accusation that I’m sure makes him smile. [1]

Most people, and certainly almost everyone involved in pedagogy, are familiar with Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, yet this work hasn’t been applied in our education system. We are gradually learning that the brain doesn’t work according to the expositional model that the traditional textbook-and-lecture structure of our education system has used for over a century. Yet as we learn, researchers are struck by the importance of arts as a means of inspiration and absorption. Arts are innate to humanity. They are a key to accessing our intellect that educators should be using as a means of improving not just education, but the lives of the students they teach.

Biology professor David Sloan Wilson of Binghamton University comments on how the arts are innate to humans by saying, “You can study music, dance, narrative storytelling, and art making scientifically, and you can conclude that, yes, they’re deeply biologically driven, they’re essential to our species.” [2] I conclude that the arts may well be a critical key to learning, and a way that is programmed into our species. If we are serious about wanting to improve our education system, then we need to remove art from the studio, and find out how to put it at the centre of teaching and learning.

Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist, and speaks to more than 20,000 business professionals a year. He volunteers his time for free to speak to high school students as his schedule permits. Contact him by email at futurist@futuresearch.com.


[1] This quote, and some of the ideas of my article are drawn from “Pleasure, Beauty and Wonder: Educating for the Knowledge Age”, by John M. Eger, the Van Deerlin Chair of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University, as published in The Futurist, January-February, 2011, pp.18-20.

[2] Ibid.

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