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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 11/23/2009

Willingham: Six practical reasons arts education is more than a luxury

By Valerie Strauss

University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of "Why Don’t Students Like School?" is my guest today.

By Daniel Willingham
Johns Hopkins University and the Dana Foundation hosted a conference titled “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain.” As the title implies, the goal was to bring together researchers considering, from an educational point of view, the impact of the arts on the brain. A book-length summary of the May conference just became available as a free pdf, available here.

Some great neuroscientists participated, including Mike Gazzaniga, Liz Spelke, and Mike Posner. The keynote speaker was Jerry Kagan, one of the leading researchers in developmental psychology. His address offered six reasons that the arts should be included in school curricula.

Kagan commented that Americans are pragmatists. They respect endeavors that cure a disease or make money, and they view the arts as luxuries. Kagan was careful to point out that his arguments stuck to the practical.

First, he estimated that something like 95% of children are capable of doing the work necessary to obtain a high school diploma, yet the dropout rate hovers around 25%. Too many of these students quit because they decide (usually in about the fourth grade) that school is not the place for them. This decision is based largely on their perception of their performance in reading and mathematics. The arts, Kagan argues, offers such students another chance to feel successful, and to feel that they belong at school.

Second, Kagan argues that children today have very little sense of agency—that is, the sense that they undertake activities that have an impact on the world, however small. Kagan notes that as a child he had the autonomy to explore his town on his own, something that most parents today would not allow. When not exploring, his activities were necessarily of his own design, whereas children today would typically watch television or roam the internet, activities that are frequently passive and which encourage conformity. The arts, Kagan argues, offer that sense of agency, of creation.

Third, Kagan argues that the arts offer a unique means of communication, using representations in the mind other than words, which are at the core of most school subjects. Kagan offers an evocative personal example. He had read about the distinction in Japanese culture between two modes of social interaction. One emphasizes politeness, and one cannot always express all that one thinks. In the other mode, appropriate for intimate associations, one may speak freely. Kagan noted that his understanding of this distinction was much richer after viewing paintings at the Tokyo museum that used this theme, for example, one of two gulls flying, one with its feet visible, the other with its feet tucked out of sight. The arts communicate in ways that words do not.

Fourth, participation in the arts allows children to see the importance of creating beauty, of creating an object that others may enjoy. When a child gets an A on a math test, the immediate benefit is to the child alone. But when the child creates a drawing, she makes something for the pleasure of others as well.

Fifth, the arts offer an opportunity for children to work together. Most school work is solitary, but when a band is congratulated for a performance it is the band as a whole that receives the compliment, not the individual child. Kagan ties this value to a larger moral complex. Too many of children’s activities are solitary, and solely for the child’s benefit. Morality and concern for others grows, in part, from understanding what it means to have a common fate.

Sixth, the arts provide a chance for children to express feelings that they otherwise might be unable to express. Kagan cites data showing health benefits for this sort of self-expression; several studies have shown that writing, even briefly, about emotional conflicts reduces illness and increases feelings of well-being. Kagan proposes that similar benefits might accrue from artistic expression.

Yes, core subjects like reading, math, history, civics, geography, and science are important. But the arts should not be treated as a luxury to be indulged should time allow.

For more on Education, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | November 23, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Arts Education, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, arts education  
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Excellent analysis of the benefits of a well-designed arts curriculum--brava! I would add a seventh point: disciplinary content knowledge around the arts is routinely excised in the "back to basics," high-stakes testing mode that many schools have necessarily adopted. All children should have a working understanding of their own and other cultural histories and markers. It's just as important for students to understand the great sweep of Western music (which is linked to the acoustic overtone series) as it is for them to solve geometric proofs. In fact, given a world saturated with persuasive images and sounds, it might be much more important for students to perceive the power of the arts, a way to analyze the all-pervasive media that surrounds them.

The critical question here is whether most schools develop arts programs that actually encourage students to engage, create beauty, express feelings, and so on. Most school arts programs are seen as the add-on luxury you mention, and are focused on providing entertainment, a place for students to kick back after their real, academic work. It's not the fault of arts teachers--they see far more children for far less time, and most try to build content basics into their programs.

Posted by: nflanagan2 | November 23, 2009 9:14 AM | Report abuse

I agree. But I'm afraid all I can say is show me the money. Where will it come from? Are you an artist? Have you ever priced how much supplies are? They are NOT cheap. We live in a world of endless needs and limited resources. I wish this wasn't so, but it is. Period.

Posted by: krising40 | November 23, 2009 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Outstanding! Why do we always have to explain the obvious. I love the logic of it all. When I taught band for DCPS, for some kids it really was one of the only reasons they came to school. They truly hated school except for band. Imagine the shock of the other teachers and administrators, when the kids behaved for me and were respectful!

Posted by: zacgomez | November 23, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

to krising40:

Yes, art supplies, instruments, etc. are pricy. The money does have to come from somewhere. But Sports are expensive too--and it is very rare that they ever get cut. Some music stores have rent to own programs for instruments where you pay a monthly fee that eventually adds up to the cost of the instrument. In the Strings program that I was involved in, my parents had to provide the instrument for me and the rest was provided. Our orchestra did several fund raisers so we could buy stands, additional sheet music, etc. Where there is a will, there is a way. The Arts shouldn't be ignored simply because they come at a cost.

Posted by: Merdi | November 23, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Another practical argument: The arts are a huge source of economic strength and export in this country. Musicians, actors, dancers, designers, and others are making a living with the arts. The U.S. sends our movies and music all over the world. When people think "the arts" maybe they just imagine opera or something else that they imagine to be esoteric and unrelated to real life. I doubt that anybody goes one day without enjoying the arts. It is just as important to nurture those talents in our children as it is their talents in math and science.

Posted by: drl97 | November 23, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

"Too many of children’s activities are . . .solely for the child’s benefit." Actually, most children's activities today seem to be for the teacher's benefit or for their parents. Standardized tests, of course, are designed to make the school look good, not to test what the students know and can actually interfer with learning. Even after-school activities are designed not to give students experiences the schools don't teach but just to keep corralled for a while.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | November 25, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

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