The Value of Art Education in Schools Today
By Katherine Chen
Back in high school, I took a lot of art classes. I was always only proficient in art, but something about the subject intrigued me. For me, art was a bigger break in the day than going out with my friends for lunch. It was forty-five minutes of complete relaxation. Even though my mind was still stimulated, working on an acrylic painting or a pencil drawing never felt like schoolwork. Likewise, take-home art assignments which had fixed deadlines never felt like homework, at least not in the same way that calculus problems or English papers did.
Despite my general appreciation for art, however, I found myself asking the same question over and over again in my head. What is the real purpose of having art classes in school? After all, standardized tests never include any questions about art, which means that the subject can’t really be that vital to general education. So were art classes really just a frill of the high school or college curriculum? Was it essentially useless to people who had no interest in one day becoming professional artists?
In this economic climate, seemingly everyone is preoccupied with pursuing a career that is both lucrative and self-satisfying. Just the other day, a friend of mine talked about her dreams of becoming a successful musician. She said there was nothing more thrilling than performing in a music hall before a large and supportive audience. I then asked her if that was what she was currently engaged in at college, to which she made a disgusted face at me and shook her head. “I’m a finance major,” she said and rolled her eyes. I left the conversation there.
Research shows that art education is far from useless, however. Art can actually inform and even enhance a student’s ability in other subjects, including math, science, and English. It can help people of all cultures and origins appreciate not only their own personal backgrounds but also those of other people. In short, art is unlike any other subject in that it can cross international boundaries and teach students from a very young age how to work cooperatively in groups.
The majority of educators today believe that art is as vital to general education as the subjects we usually take for granted in a third grade or kindergarten classroom. In an article written by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland in 2007 titled “Art for our Sake,” the authors claimed that art education teaches a completely different set of skills than those belonging to other common and well-known subjects. Both Winner and Hetland spent a whole academic year sitting in five visual arts classrooms and studying the behavior and self-expression of the students. What they found was nothing short of amazing.
On the surface, the students appeared to be learning only how to mix paint, draw shapes, and color within the lines. However, these skills enabled the students in the class to learn from their mistakes, revise their work, listen to fellow classmates’ critique with an open mind, and even critique their own drawings or paintings from an objective distance. Winner and Hetland discovered that students learned over time to be persistent in their endeavors. Instead of working on a project that took only half an hour or less, students were forced to continue pieces for days, weeks, and sometimes months until they were finished.
Another pivotal skill that comes from art education is the ability to see beyond what is right there in front of you. Students began to make ties between what they learned in the art classroom and what they learned elsewhere. For instance, a lesson on how to capture light in a painting could greatly augment what they read that same day on the nature of light in the science classroom.
Whether it is a few hours of coloring in primary school or a lecture on the Surrealist art movement in college, art education has proven itself to be one of the fundamental building blocks of school curriculums around the world. It is not just a frill of a child or young adult’s everyday education. Rather, it is a window through which both young and old minds can explore new possibilities and answers to the very real problems in the world today.