Thursday, May 2, 2013

The True Success of Arts Education

I know I promised my next post would be about the marvelous new book I’ve discovered, but I ran across this story in my Facebook feed this morning, and it got me so excited I had to write about it:

First, take a moment to go read the article. I’m not going to rehash every word here in my blog post, and I want you to just take a moment and enjoy what has happened here: A failing school, built for the arts but overwhelmed by an uncooperative student body discards the arts in favor of armed security. Instead of solving the problem, the school devolved further into a “career-ending” school for those who dared work there. Our Hero, a plucky, mild-mannered principal (I have no idea, I just made that up), swoops in, the 6th principal in 7 years, and wipes the school of its security forces, using that money to pivot the school back towards its original purpose – hiring art teachers and building an arts program for the students. The result? CHAOS! Death and destruction! Failed lives! Destroyed families!

Oh, wait . . . no, the result, as anyone familiar with children and the arts would expect, was a drop in “violence and disorder”, a rise in test scores, and a student population who suddenly glimpsed an entirely different world in front of them, full of undiscovered possibility. While far from an instant, magical fix – the school still has a ways to go to be competitive academically – it has to feel no less than magical to students like Keyvaughn, who has discovered talents he didn’t know he had and is moving on to “the competitive Boston Arts Academy, the city’s only public high school specializing in visual and performing arts.” I know it felt almost magical to me, to realize my talent and my place in the arts, and I was in college before that happened. (Did you read the story yet? Go do that.)

In all that glory for the arts and excitement for the talents the students discover, leave it to me to find a windmill to tilt at.  And in my quixotic mind, it’s a big one.

The story highlights one success story (of many, I’m sure!), the aforementioned Keyvaughn, whose anecdote ends with this quote: “I can really have a future in this, I don't have to go to a regular high school — I can go to art school.”

Does anyone else see the windmill? If you do just shout it out, just like on Blue’s Clues. I can hear you, I swear. Really. What’s that? A little louder . . . Ok, I’m just going to assume you said, “What about the kids who aren’t going on to a performing arts school? Are they less of a success story?” 

That is what you said, yes? I thought so.

Every time I see one of these “Arts Saves Education!!!” stories, I thrill at the truth getting out – art in education *is* vital, and it *is* life changing, and these stories highlight that. I find that so exciting. And yet I inevitably finish these stories with an adjacent feeling of disappointment. Because to me, arts in education is not only – or even mainly – about the child who discovers she can channel Louis Armstrong on the trumpet (did he play trumpet? He blew into something shiny.). Nor is it the child who realizes he can dance his way into a successful arts career, or the child that suddenly sees visions of Oscars dance in her head. Because in any arts school, those are going to be The Few.

And while it is absolutely worth celebrating the unearthing of buried talents, no less worthy of celebration are those who will come out of those arts programs and go on to become mechanics, business owners, teachers, managers, office workers, parents, and even . . . *shudder* politicians. Yes, I would even dare say that they are more worthy of celebration – not as individuals, but as success stories. Because if we judge the success of art education on its contribution to the pool of Hollywood Elites, we set the institution up for a pretty low success rate. More than that, we discount the life changing impact education in the arts has on its non-elite beneficiaries, on those who will go on to live full and successful lives in a variety of professions vital to the eclectic makeup of our society.

This is a large part of my love for community theatre – the idea that art is for everyone, its impact is universal, and there isn’t a single person who can’t benefit from it, even if they just paint stick figures on canvas, or trip over their own feet in the back of the ensemble, or count on more talented voices than theirs to drown out their off-notes in the chorus.


  1. I absolutely agree. I think the point -WAY more so than every kid who ever successfully portrayed Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls" deciding to major in Theatre Arts (don't get me started!)- is that Arts and Sports and extracurriculars give ALL kids a reward and a reason to behave and keep their grades up so they can participate in these programs, as well an an outlet to express their creativity and a way to be well-rounded, experienced people. Sometimes the thought process is, "Well, Math and English are hard, but I'm really good at Band, so I need to go to school for that." Sometimes the thought process is, "After sitting on my butt working hard on my term paper, I look forward to running track to keep in shape and release my tension." Or,"If I don't get my homework done, I can't go to Scouts."

    In my particular case, two things happened: As the new kid in school FOUR times, people found out I could sing and were suddenly interested in this and it opened the door to friendships. Secondly,my myriad Arts and athletic interests translated into realizing that life as an adult did not have to be drudgery. Yes, I have to work hard in a field I'm good at, but I can also be in a play, take a Burlesque class, or go swim laps to work off some tension and/or creatively express myself. It also gives me personal pride that, although I may be an average, mild-mannered (kind of) accountant now, dammit, I was once Flag Corps Captain of a State winning band! That's special!

  2. hear, hear!! I assist with the Youth Worship Arts Drama troupe at our church and our director (a high school drama teacher) starts by telling each new group of students, "Here's the bottom line. I adore what theater does for students, and adults as well. Don't get me wrong. Academics rule, and I'm a huge sports fan as well. But, regardless if you're a CEO, teacher, salesperson, or homemaker, at some point you will have to stand up in front of another person (or people) and convince them of something. And that's where theater comes in."

  3. Love it! I knew I was in the right place in high school when my drama teacher said (in so many words) that she was not expecting all of us to become famous actors and actresses, but to apply what we learn to life and whatever career we end up in. And it's true-my improv skills alone improved my first year teaching elementary school! lol

  4. My drama & art classes made school fun for me. Those are the classes I remember the most. I work with teenagers, I know it really does make a difference to them. It really gives them a reason to care about school, other than the abstract "it will help your future" reason, that usually doesn't touch them in a meaningful way.