By Madhavi Sunder
In our current technological age, it is easy to neglect the arts as an important part of children’s education. By arts, I mean a wide range of creative endeavors, including painting, drawing, sculpture, dance, drama, literature, and music. With the economic downturn and the state’s attention focused on preparing students for standardized tests, arts education, especially in the elementary schools, has suffered.
Davis offers an exemplary music program taught by a district teacher beginning in fourth grade. Literature continues to be an important part of the school curriculum. However, other arts in the primary grades face many challenges. These exist largely where either the teacher himself or herself takes the initiative and finds the resources, or where parent and community groups can find external resources. Even at the high school, where we have award-winning music programs, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for students to begin learning music. (After all, it is never too late to try your hand at the arts.)
In this column, I want to focus on the value of arts education, and leave the crucial topic of resources for a later discussion. I recognize fully that art and music require significant financial resources, and that the district faces the difficult task of allocating ever scarcer resources among a wide set of basic needs.
In this column I turn to the work of my friend Martha Nussbaum, a leading champion of arts education. Professor Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. (I was lucky enough to be her colleague for a year when I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago Law School.) Professor Nussbaum visited me here in Davis this summer and I had the opportunity to take her to the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s Summer Festival performance of Much Ado About Nothing. We discussed the vital role of the arts in children’s lives.
In her 2010 book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Professor Nussbaum argues that arts education, under threat all over the world, must be embraced because it supplies the skills needed to nurture true democratic citizens. Nussbaum cautions that our national and global focus on economic competition and growth must not come at the expense of opportunities for our children to have critical and hands-on engagement with art, music, and literature, all of which help foster our basic humanity — creativity, critical thinking, and empathy for others. Cultivating these values, she argues are the deeper purposes of education. Education is not just a tool for promoting the Gross National Product. Education must nurture the whole child, and arts are vital in this endeavor.
I have been speaking to other leaders in our schools about the arts, as well. I outline here some of the benefits of supporting arts education in our public schools, including opportunities for our youngest children.
- Hands-on learning. Project-based learning, an increasingly popular approach to education, recognizes the role of the arts. Project-based-learning involving arts, for example, might include learning about the civil rights movement through histories and biographies, but also through drama or dance. A child might learn about history, civics and journalism through a student newspaper set in a historical period or inspired by a fictional book. The goal is to provide students with “personally meaningful and expressive outlet(s) while building on standards-based instruction,” says Dr. Laurie Gatlin is an assistant professor in the School of Art at California State University. I like to think of this as part of “passion-based learning.” As Davis High School Principal Will Brown told me this week, we need arts, including technical arts, in schools because these are among the opportunities that “engage kids and bring them back to school, and get them caring.” Students engage with the material more when they are excited not just by what they are learning but how they are learning.
- Fostering critical thinking and creativity. Cultural texts can serve as vehicles for questioning or critiquing something in the real world. Through a real-world Harry Potter Alliance, for example, children uphold the Potter books’ values of being kind, having the courage to question authority, and fighting for justice by organizing around real world issues, from protesting human rights atrocities in Darfur to questioning book banning at home.
- Empathy. “Arts education is not just tremendous fun and a great incentive to learning in general, it’s also a very important part of democracy’s future,” Martha Nussbaum says. “Through the arts young people learn to imagine the world through the eyes of people different from themselves, an ability that’s crucial for good citizenship.” Studies show that participating in dramatic arts and role-playing helps children to negotiate conflict and develop language and collaborative skills. Perhaps most importantly in our diverse and increasingly inter-connected world, physically and emotionally inhabiting the role of another helps children learn empathy, as they contemplate what it may be like to walk in another’s shoes.
- Nurturing the whole child. Our curriculum should be well rounded to ensure that children’s diverse talents may be identified and nurtured. One size does not fit all, especially in children’s education. Emphasis on math and science to the exclusion of other subjects may miss the opportunity to nurture other important talents, from sports to the arts. Arts education, like sports education, can promote confidence and collaboration. This activity can also help promote good mental health in our schools. Art and music help children relieve stress, maintain balance, nurture talents and friendships, and stay engaged in school.
- The joy in education. Of course, the arts are not just a means to an end. The arts are an end in themselves. Dance, theater, and music keep joy in our lives and in our schools.
Arts education makes school joyful and meaningful and helps nurture the whole child. If I am fortunate to be elected to the Davis School Board this November, I will seek to develop partnerships with arts organizations, theatre companies, and foundations to enhance arts education here in Davis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped establish the Da Vinci Charter Academy. I will reach out to non-profits, the private sector and universities to help to bring arts opportunities to all our district’s children.
Madhavi Sunder has been a professor of law at UC Davis since 1999 and is a candidate for the Davis School Board in November 2014. To learn more about her campaign please visit www.sunderforschools.org or follow (and perhaps “like”) her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sunderforschoolboard.