The importance of teaching the arts

We shouldn't value arts education on the basis that it has social or economic benefits, but because it expands the mind and soul.

Arts education has always been a contested area. Many arts educators have defended the arts in the school curriculum by emphasising their role in students’ moral and individual development. For example, EB Feldman, defending arts education in the US during the 1980s, argued that it should not be about creating artists but about something broader. He suggests arts education can imbue in young people a sense of the satisfaction that comes from working to create something, the ability to use and understand language effectively, and a profound sense of ‘the values that permit civilised life to go on’.

Like Elliot Eisner and other proponents of arts education on both sides of the Atlantic writing in the 1980s and 1990s, Feldman argues cogently, showing a deep knowledge of art and history and an even deeper commitment to humanist principles. Now, more often than not, arts education is framed instrumentally. It is defended as a means of supporting the rest of the school curriculum (to make it more interesting), a means to enhance students’ employability, and a means of developing a good environmentally aware, health-conscious citizen.

The arts have a complex relationship with society, but arts lovers need to make a case for arts education that doesn’t harness it to contemporary moral, civic, social or economic priorities. And we shouldn’t resort to implying that without it people are likely to be stupid or more inclined to crime and immoral behaviour, or even that it makes people more employable. The Gradgrind mentality of relying on ‘facts’ - that is, ‘evidence’ that arts do good - allows little space for an intellectual consideration of the complexities of arts-based experiences.

Furthermore, arguments for arts or cultural education, made by vociferous advocates in the UK cultural sector, too often rely on dubious ‘brain science’ as supposed evidence that the arts are good for us. Research claiming to show evidence of the benefits of the arts does not stand up to scrutiny, as recognised by a recent OECD report, Art for Art’s Sake?. Even El Sistema, the Venezuelan music-education programme, which takes impoverished young people and gives them a chance to perform music in public, shows the importance of clear focus, high motivation, collaborative effort and a lot of hard work, rather than music itself. Indeed, young people could achieve something similar by playing for a football team. The fact that people are so in awe of El Sistema says more about the low expectations of young people’s abilities than about the importance of the arts to society.

The arts and learning

The arts are central to the idea of education being about inculcating a love of learning, of acquiring knowledge. It is no accident that the arts are traditionally connected with the idea of being educated. Hence an educated person is assumed to be interested in the arts.

Twentieth-century German philosopher Ernst Cassirer explained the importance of the arts as follows: ‘Science gives us order in thoughts, morality gives us order in actions; art gives us order in the apprehension of visible, tangible and audible appearances.’ A good education includes a good arts education, introducing children and young people to great literature (novels, poetry and short stories, plays), dance, visual arts, music and film. How a school prioritises the arts may be up for debate and depend on the specialist teachers schools have access to. But a school should still be committed to introducing children to the best there is in as many art forms as possible.

In the 1980s, arts educators in the US and the UK developed ‘discipline-based arts education’ (DBAE) as a way of clarifying what should be included in an arts curriculum. Rejecting the previous emphasis on ‘self-expression’ and child-centred learning, advocates of DBAE outlined four integrated areas of study around skills and making, historical knowledge, aesthetic understanding and critical judgement, with the aim of helping students to learn to think like artists and art critics.

A visual-arts curriculum might seek, therefore, to develop skills in, and experience of, a range of art techniques and processes using line, colour, texture and form. These are not just technical skills, but skills in seeing and expression from an aesthetic perspective. For this reason, DBAE also develops in students a historical and cultural perspective in a variety of visual art forms, including painting, printing and sculpture; it explores ideas about what makes arts aesthetically pleasing or satisfying; and it develops capacity for judging and explaining judgements, as well as being able to participate in broader philosophical conversations about, for example, what constitutes art and whether beauty matters.

DBAE is still, formally, the basis for arts in the English national curriculum. But the instrumentalisation of education in the UK, making it more accountable to the needs of the economy and contemporary socio-political agendas, has taken its toll on arts education. The above-mentioned OECD report exemplifies this tendency: it frames arts education in terms of ‘skills critical for innovation: critical and creative thinking, motivation, self-confidence, and ability to communicate and co-operate effectively’. 

Although we apparently live in a knowledge-based society, knowledge in the curriculum - particularly the arts curriculum - has been displaced by an emphasis on creativity. At the same time, the arts have been elided with creativity as a catch-all concept, a means to a successful and happy life. The arts now provide us with problem-solving skills, innovative mindsets, communicative attitudes and inspiration. Conceived thus, the arts have become the butt of banalities about everyday life, cohesive communities, a good society and a buoyant economy.

Everyday creativity, however, is very different to artistic creativity. The conflation of the two in discussions about democratising the arts and promoting arts education has led to a real devaluing of the arts, artistic knowledge and skill. Creativity arises from a complex synthesis of abstract knowledge, concrete knowhow of specific skills and processes, and inner drive; to downplay the importance of knowledge and knowhow in the creative process can only diminish it.

The old Masters?

So perhaps it is worth thinking more deeply about arts education and why it is a necessary part of a good education. W H Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Artes’ comes to mind:

‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…’

I studied this poem at school and it has always remained in my ear as a kind of rueful wisdom. The arts are part of the world we live in. Shakespeare’s language is part of our idiom, offering expression for every feeling and emotion, from despair to love. Great buildings make us wonder at human ingenuity and ambition. Paintings from Rembrandt’s self portraits to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ have become popular and recognisable expressions of complex emotions, from the experience of aging to the horrors of war to the pleasure we take in the natural world. Novelists from Austen to Tolstoy to Orwell are frequently drawn on as sources of insights about the individual in changing societies.

Great works of art become a common language through which we perceive and deal with our world. You don’t need to have read Auden’s poems or seen Shakespeare’s plays, much less studied them, to be part of the world in which they resonate. Insights about our existence - the human condition - formulated by artists, enter our lives through many different channels and often shape the processes through which we find meaning in our lives.

However, at the very least, a good education provides young people with an appreciation of the importance of the arts: a sense of why they matter, where they come from, how they fit together, why they can be sources of such greater pleasure and insight, and what additional insights they can yield if you do study them. As spiked regular Frank Furedi has pointed out in his book, Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating, the teacher’s role is to pass on the wisdom of generations, ‘to teach children about the world as it is’. He writes: ‘It is impossible to engage with the future unless people draw on the insights and knowledge gained through centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through familiarity with the unfolding of the human world.’ 

Similarly, Hannah Arendt described education as an essentially conservative process. It gives children a foundational knowledge of what the world is like so they can find their feet in it. Education should not be about instructing children in the art of living. Ideally, formal education should be a period of separation from the pressures and demands of daily life. The content of education should be (as Matthew Arnold expressed it nearly 200 years ago) the best that has been thought and said in the world - because otherwise it degenerates into moral emotional rhetoric, an attempt to manipulate children who do not have the maturity to resist.

Viewing education as a useful social-engineering mechanism, to cope with contemporary social problems such as unemployment, social disaffection and fragmented communities, has undermined its substantive and historic role. For anyone keen to retrieve education as a process of teaching children, conveying a love of learning, rather than trying to manipulate them, a good arts education is a perfect place to start.

The importance of arts education in the school curriculum is that it can begin to introduce students to another way of understanding themselves and the world, and different ways of expressing thoughts, experiences and feelings that are not easily expressed in everyday symbols and signs. A good arts education is built on and reflects recognition of the specific and unique way that the arts shape our thinking and our lives.

As a distinct area of human activity and development, the arts provide forms of symbolic representation that are close to language, but not identical with it. The complex and contradictory character of some experiences, and our responses to them, are simply beyond the reach of everyday language. As products of intellectual activity, reflecting the many different trajectories our search for meaning can take, the arts make internal experiences external.

The richness of art lies in its indefinite character, which allows inexhaustible possibilities of expression and interpretation. The arts do not deal with question of ‘what is it for?’ or ‘why does it exist?’. Rather they externalise our inner lives in sensuous form. As the philosopher Susanne Langer suggested: ‘Art is the objectification of feeling, and in developing our intuition, teaching eye and ear to perceive expressive form, it makes form expressive for us wherever we confront it, in actuality as well as in art.’

Arts and the public

Perhaps the greatest failure of contemporary arts education is its inability to equip young people with knowledge, understanding and knowhow to enable them to engage fully in critical public debate about the arts. Democratisation of the arts – making them accessible to everyone, engendering real public engagement – requires an arts education that properly introduces young people to a range of art forms (and gives them a sense that there are others to explore).

Most students who study the arts will not become artists; those who do will specialise in one artform. So the purpose of a good arts education must primarily be to develop the ability to judge, ideally within a range of forms. Art, once it leaves the studio or the rehearsal room, no longer belongs to the artist and becomes subject to the judgement of others. If we really want to democratise the arts, we need to give young people enough knowledge to enter into an intelligent debate about what is good and what is not.

Ultimately the justification for arts education lies in promoting the love of learning, the desire to plumb the inexhaustible depths of artistic creation, and hence a world in which the arts can thrive. I can’t put it better than Virginia Woolf, whose concept of the ‘common reader’ can be stretched to the ‘common arts lover’:

‘If… to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print…. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.’

Wendy Earle is impacts and knowledge exchange manager, Birkbeck, University of London and the convenor of Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.

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Footnotes and references

An Essay on Man, by Ernst Cassirer, Yale University Press, 1944

Mind: an Essay on Human Feeling, Vol 1, by Susanne K Langer, John Hopkins University Press, 1967

A Sermon on Work, Language, and Values, by Edmund Burke Feldman

Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating, by Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2009

The Crisis of Education in Between Past and Future, by Hannah Arendt, Penguin, 1996

‘How should one read a book?’ included in The Common Reader, Second Series, by Virginia Woolf, 1925