The arts have been central to human experience for millennia. They give meaning and expression to what is important in our society and in our lives: who we are, where we come from, our hopes, fears and imaginings. In education, the arts nurture individual creativity. They build confidence and foster dreams. They enrich and empower children. The arts bring learning to life. They are crucial to the development of the whole child and are central to the new BC curriculum.
Yet the arts have been treated as expendable extras in our schools.
We British Columbians have allowed the economic values of efficiency, utility and individual achievement to take precedence over equity, inclusion, mutual co-operation and aesthetic expression. At the international level (and here in BC), education is being similarly reshaped by an economic imperative. This has been bolstered by standardized test results like the FSA and PISA, that rank schools and countries on narrowly measurable “outcomes” in numeracy, literacy and science. As critics have pointed out, that reductive view of educational achievement has marginalized other, equally important goals of education, particularly the development of civic, moral and aesthetic capacities. A faulty understanding of “achievement” has helped perpetuate the erroneous idea, not least among anxious parents, that the primary goal of education is to acquire a competitive edge. Subjects perceived to have a direct link to employment have been prioritized in policy and funding decisions at the expense of other subject, like the arts, whose benefits cannot be quantified through standardized tests.
Consequently, the arts have been the first casualty of austerity cutbacks, and BC is certainly no exception. From the mid 1990s, funding cutbacks to public education have resulted in a dramatic reduction in specialist teachers, particularly at the elementary level, and a corresponding dispossession of arts spaces in schools. For example, based on interviews with former district staff, the Vancouver School district, previously a leader in North America for arts education, has seen an 84% reduction in the number of music specialists and a 95% reduction in visual art specialists in elementary schools over the last 25 years. These are conservative statistics; the “real” numbers may be worse.
With the loss of teacher specialization in the arts at the elementary level, the responsibility for arts education has fallen on generalist classroom teachers, most of whom have little or no background in the arts, no funding for equipment or supplies, and likely no access to appropriate facilities. While gyms remain an essential component of elementary schools in the government’s revised area standards, art rooms, music rooms and performance spaces have been eliminated as inefficient use of space. Overall, this has translated into a massive loss of school based knowledge and expertise about art-making and its vital importance in children’s intellectual and social-emotional development.
Even though the arts are core-curricular, the 2015 provincial satisfaction survey showed that only 42% of grade 3s and 4s and 34% of grade 7s answered “yes” to the question, “In school are you learning about art?” Instead of a comprehensive, sequential school-based arts education, arts education is concentrated in a few arts focused ‘choice’ schools, with a sporadic or ‘accidental’ arts education everywhere else. Increasingly, the arts are being ‘supplemented’ through short-term residences that rely on grants, parent fundraising or charitable donations.
Ironically, the core competencies of the new BC curriculum, communication, creative and critical thinking, and personal and social identities, are all intimately connected with knowledge and understanding of the arts. Yet there is a total disconnect between the educational goals and aspirations of the new curriculum as designed by teachers, and the government’s overarching goal to ‘re-engineer’ education to skill students for jobs. Changes to graduation requirements have reduced arts elective options drastically and students are no longer required to take a fine arts course beyond grade 9, seriously diminishing the depth and breadth of educational opportunities for students. Instead, money is diverted to skill students for specific jobs to satisfy workforce demands of potential investors first in the LNG and now in technology. ‘Coding’ is the new ‘hands-on-learning’ in elementary school.
These policy decisions are particularly short-sighted given the growing body of evidence that the arts advance academic achievement and understanding, but also the kind of divergent thinking needed for our future economy. These “habits of mind” that foster creativity – critical reflection, flexible repurposing, persistence, risk taking and open-ended problem solving - that have been identified by business leaders and the BC government as key characteristics for a “rapidly changing world,” are integral to art making and learning. It is entirely possible that these habits of mind cannot be taught without the arts.
Consider the failure of the STEM initiative in the United States, intended to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness through a prioritization of science, technology, engineering and mathematic subjects in K-12. Students performed poorly on higher level critical thinking and problem solving tasks prompting a growing number of schools to integrate the arts in order to develop creativity (STEAM). Reductive stereotypes of the arts as elite anachronistic activities limited to landscape painting or classical ballet, have blinded decision makers to the real contribution of the arts in society as the creative enterprise that it is has always been, an integral part of technological and scientific innovation.
But the arts are important for more than just cognitive development, they are also crucial to the social emotional well-being of children and our whole society. The arts open all children up to the complexity and aesthetic beauty of the world and one another, through a felt perception that engenders both empathy and care, consistent with aboriginal ways of knowing and learning. The cultivation of critical perception or visual literacy skills is simply crucial if students are to resist stereotypes, and navigate critically the consumer aesthetics of a media-saturated and increasingly virtual world.
The arts allow children to re-integrate their senses and to process experience in tactile, material ways that is deeply grounding and develops self-regulation, persistence, resilience and grit. The arts give space and value to the unique voice and creative potential of each individual child, building confidence and self-esteem, and promoting the generosity of being essential in any inclusive community.
We acknowledge the proven positive impact of the arts on the mental health of children by funding carefully targeted art and music therapy programs in schools for at-risk youths. But we have failed to examine the social emotional impact on children of reducing or even removing authentic arts engagement from schools. Anxiety, depression and substance abuse are on the rise, and here again, a complete arts education must be part of the solution, promoting healthy self-expression and self-worth for all children.
The role of the arts in developing a healthy sense of self and belonging within the world, and for promoting cross cultural understanding cannot be overstated. For UNESCO, the arts are an essential component in education for peace in a diverse world. Participation in culture is recognized and identified as a universal right by the United Nations. In our own country, we see the psychological impact of denying authentic cultural expression to aboriginal people groups and the centrality of cultural revival and participation in their political empowerment. The arts give children agency. They teach children that they can be makers and transformers of their world. Without the arts, we consign children to passive consumption of culture.
One of the most serious consequences of declining commitment to arts education is the resulting inequality of access of children to the arts. One in five children in BC—a shocking 109,331 school aged children—live in poverty. Their parents cannot afford the basic school supply fee let alone the cost of private music lessons, art classes, dance or theatre instruction. Longitudinal studies show that high arts engagement narrows and sometimes closes the gap between the life outcomes of students at risk and those of their socially advantaged peers. This holds true for academic achievement, university graduation, employment and civic engagement. If public education does not include equitable access to quality arts education, then we deny all children access to a fundamental educational right.
The arts are essential, not extra.
Mother of three and a long-time artist, art educator and art historian, Maggie Milne Martens is one of the co-founders of the Parent Advocacy Network for Public Education.
Welcome to the PENS Blog on public education! Our bloggers include parents, teachers, education researchers, and other strong supporters of public education in BC and in Canada. Taking the lead is Bill Bruneau, Professor Emeritus UBC, ex-Vancouver School Board trustee, ex-President of his faculty association, and ex-president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.