Ethical Inquiry: August 2010


Arts Education: a Luxury, Essential, or a Means to an End?

When resources for education (time, money, expertise) are limited, is it right to use some of these resources for arts education? Is it a frill for those with the time and money to spend on it? An essential part of being a fully realized human being that no one should be deprived of? Or is it a means to an end that should be utilized to the degree that it boosts achievement and skills in other areas?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states in Article 27 “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Participating in culture is open to everyone. But access to arts education is often limited to the privileged few.

In this installment of “Ethical Inquiry” we explore the place of arts education in difficult economic times, and in a global culture where even the most developed nations facer stiff competition and developing nations scramble for resources. What is the ethical use of our education resources, when it comes to children most in need?
Americans for the Arts logoThere is evidence for broad support for arts education in the United States. In a 2001 Americans for the Arts national public opinion survey of adults, 91 percent of respondents said that “the arts are vital to a well-rounded education” and 96 percent said that “the arts belong to everyone, not just the fortunate or privileged.” But funding for arts education is often threatened or cut.

As the United States government promotes an unprecedented set of national education standards, it would seem an appropriate time to explore this question.

Note: For the purposes of this inquiry, we will borrow from the Kennedy Center’s ArtsEdge National Standards for Arts Education a definition of “art” that encompasses, in part “(1) creative works and the process of producing them, and (2) the whole body of work in the art forms that make up the entire human intellectual and cultural heritage,” and uses “the terms arts discipline and art form to refer to Dance, Music, Theatre, and the Visual Arts, recognizing that each of these encompasses a wide variety of forms and sub-disciplines.”

A Luxury

In the United States you are not likely to find people who are against the arts in education. But to some the idea of arts in education, especially in under-resourced public schools, seems to be more of a luxury than something that is essential to a child’s growth and development. Some argue that schools need to prepare children to succeed in the economy with "hard skills" (i.e.: science, reading, and writing) and not worry about expression and creativity. Particularly in hard economic times, it seems arts programs can be the first to go.

In the U.S. there is a persistent concern that many public schools are behind the rest of the world in terms of achievement in subjects like math and science, with particular focus recently on competition from China and India, among others.

In 1983, the “A Nation at Risk” report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education began with the declaration “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in A Nation At Risk covercommerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” In the recommendations of that influential report, arts education is supported – but is not one of the “New Basics.”

In the ever-growing global community, children everywhere are being asked to achieve at greater rates than ever before. In the United States this concern for achievement was manifested in the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” (NCLB), to which many attribute the increase in test-based education and the loss of the arts. However some, such as the organization Great Schools, are not concerned, arguing that test-based education has positives.

The revised NCLB would reward schools that achieved high test scores and consequences for those which did not. This emphasis on high stakes testing has put additional pressure on funding for any part of the school day that does not contribute to test scores, including the arts.


On the website of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, First Lady Michelle Obama is quoted asserting “The arts are not just a nice thing to have or to do if there is free time or if one can afford it. Rather paintings and poetry, music ... design and dialogue, they all define who we are as a people and provide an account of our history for the next generation.”

In her 1992 book Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why Ellen Dissanayake, Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington School of Music, writes, “Art is a normal and Homo Aestheticus covernecessary behavior of human beings that like other common and universal human occupations and preoccupations such as talking, working, exercising, playing, socializing, learning, loving, and caring should be recognized, encouraged, and developed in everyone.”
Multiple Intelligences book cover
Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” theory contends that in addition to “linguistic intelligence” and “logical-mathematical intelligence” often emphasized in schools individuals have varying degrees of “Musical intelligence” “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” “spatial intelligence” among others. Often these areas are addressed in arts education to a much greater degree than in other subjects.

David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, explains in “The Arts Are Essential” that the arts do more than simply educate young people. “They keep and convey our cultural heritage while opening us up to other societies and civilizations around the globe. They help us explore what it means to be human, including both the ethical and aesthetic dimensions.” See more from the special report “Why Arts Education Must Be Saved” from Edutopia and the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

ARTSEDGE, a program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, lists a number of justifications for arts education, including “tools” arguments noted in the following section. Yet although they enumerate many practical effects of an arts education, they suggest that “Perhaps most important, the arts have intrinsic value. They are worth learning for their own sake, providing benefits not available through any other means.”

A Useful Tool

In the context of economic competition within and between nations, arts education is often justified as a means to an end: learning in other subjects, individual economic achievement, developing engaged citizens, global competitiveness, and a range of other civic goals.

A Tool for Education

There is growing evidence that the arts contribute to children’s overall learning as documented in “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning” [PDF], produced in 1999 by the Arts Education Partnership and the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

The ArtWorks for Schools Project of the Project Zero research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education aims to “…help teachers and students discover the power of the arts to enrich high-level cognition across school subjects.”

children paintingSome believe is that the arts need to be better integrated into public education so it does not become an “either/or” situation with funds for math and science programs increasing, and the arts decreasing, or to better achieve particular educational goals, as described in the Edutopia article “Cross Training: Arts and Academics Are Inseparable.”

The Arts Education Partnership, a collaboration between the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the U.S. Department of Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) emphasizes the “practical” uses of arts education as well, stating that its mission  is “…to demonstrate and promote the essential role of the arts in enabling every student to succeed in school, life and work in the diverse and global economies and societies of the 21st century.”

In an introduction to a comprehensive set of proposed standards for arts education ARTSEDGE, a program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, contends that “Arts education benefits both student and society” by helping students develop new ways of thinking and problem solving, as well as and helping students develop tools for understanding others  -- and furthermore, that arts add “ a special richness to the learning environment.”

“Schools Adopt Art as Building Block of Education” describes recent efforts in schools across the United States to integrate art into their curriculum and into the design of the school buildings themselves as a way to promote learning in other subjects. The principal of one of the schools profiled epitomizes the perspective that arts have use beyond enjoyment or creativity saying that “Looking at art is not just an aesthetic; it’s a learning resource.”

A Tool for Civic or Communal Goals

In “How John Dewey’s Theories Underpin Art and Art Education” Patricia Goldblatt writes that philosopher John Dewey, author of the influential book Art as Experience “…is a pragmatist whose attraction to art postulates it as a means to an end because he envisions the end as just and fair: democracy.”

“The Seoul Agenda: Goals for the Development of Arts Education,” [PDF] (2010) an outcome of UNESCO’s Second World Conference on Arts Education held in Seoul, the Republic of Korea, in May 2010 “calls upon UNESCO Member States, civil society, professional organizations and communities to … to realize the full potential of high quality arts education to positively renew UNESCO logoeducational systems, to achieve crucial social and cultural objectives, and ultimately to benefit children, youth and life-long learners of all ages.” The preamble of the Seoul Agenda declares that “…arts education has an important role to play in the constructive transformation of educational systems that are struggling to meet the needs of learners in a rapidly changing world characterized by remarkable advances in technology on the one hand and intractable social and cultural injustices on the other,” and that “… arts education can make a direct contribution to resolving the social and cultural challenges facing the world today.”

“Animating Democracy,” a program of Americans for the Arts Institute for Community Development and the Arts, sees art as a means to civic goals. The program “… fosters arts and cultural activity that encourages and enhances civic engagement and dialogue. It is based on the premise that democracy is animated when an informed public is engaged in the issues affecting people’s daily lives. The arts and humanities can contribute unique programs, settings, and creative approaches that reach new and diverse participants, stimulate public dialogue about civic issues, and inspire action to make change.”

A tool for innovation and economic competitiveness

The Psychology Today article “A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation”  (2009) epitomizes the argument that the arts lead to advances in other realms. The authors argue “Successful scientists and inventors are artistic people. Hobble the arts and you hobble innovation.” Asking us to “see what happens when we start throwing out all the science and technology that the arts have made possible,” the authors cite examples of artists who helped develop technologies including the cell phone.

“The Creativity Crisis” (2010) by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman writing in Newsweek, suggests that the US is falling behind because it is neglecting the importance of creativity to children’s success. “The potential consequences are sweeping,” they write:

“The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others. It’s too early to determine conclusively why U.S. creativity scores are declining. One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children.”

paintbrushesWhat Do You Think?

There is more to explore on this topic. We invite your comments.

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was produced with research support by Kayla Dinces ’12. Thanks also to Cynthia Cohen, Director of the Center's Programs in Peacebuilding and the Arts; Eileen Kell, Senior Department Coordinator at the Education Program; and Michele L’Heureux, Curator and Director of the Arts at the Women’s Studies Research Center.