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Building Back Better Must Include the Arts

Let's take stock of where we are in these pandemic racked times.

We are stressed, overwhelmed and confused. We are struggling with prolonged isolation and the disruption of our routines. Our economy is precarious, with unprecedented unemployment and food uncertainty. Our emotional and mental wellbeing is under attack. Feelings of anxiety and depression are frequently not the exception, but rather the rule. With some glimmer of hope on the horizon, we remain unsettled by the absence of a timeline that might suggest an expectation of resuming “normal.”

This assessment is not confined to adults.

Children (22.6% of the country’s population) are experiencing these feelings as well, yet without some of the coping mechanisms that come with maturity and experience. They are keenly aware of the stress and uncertainty of joblessness. One in six children in the United States are hungry or unsure where their next meal will come from. Kids are experiencing enormous socialization losses due to distance learning and the lack of opportunity to be with their friends. For many of America’s children, the experiences of the past year have created a fragile state of mental health.

Throughout the course of human history, we have turned to artistic expression as a vehicle to address our stress, record our history, convey our observations and soothe our souls. Through music, dance, sculpture, painting, videography and written language we have historically, and consistently, found ways to address the challenges of life, while simultaneously coming to peace with our angst. That, fundamentally, is what the arts are about - the conveyance of feelings into something tangible, lasting and, with any luck, provocative and inspirational. The arts convey meaning across, and beyond, geographic, cultural and economic borders. They define who we are, and bring healing to our pain.

For generations of American children, the arts have been seen as superficial and expendable in their educational experience. When economic hardships hit our systems of public education, programs associated with the arts are frequently among the first to be reduced or eliminated. We tend to prioritize other academic disciplines as being more critical in the quest for a quality education. However, I contend that a “quality”experience must also be inclusive, and that must include the arts. While some might suggest that the arts fall outside the parameter of “essential disciplines of study,” I argue that understanding our creative history and the opportunity to engage in thoughtful artistic expression belongs at the core, the very center, of the public education we provide our youngest citizens. The reasons for this are extensive.

The arts heal.

Think about the crossroads of American life and the role the arts have played as gestures in healing. I’m reminded of the attacks on 9/11/2001. Out of that torturous and challenging experience came the American memorial quilt project, along with the emergence of countless other opportunities to allow the arts to facilitate the healing of our hearts and our souls. Through music, movement and visual representations, Americans found a vehicle of healing in the arts: a need as great today as it was then. And this was not an isolated occurrence. Time and time again, humans have found solace, and have discovered purpose and renewed energy, through artistic expression. Art as therapy is not a new concept. Sadly, it is a concept too frequently overlooked in our schools.

The arts motivate.

I’m reminded of a young man who was a student of mine early in my teaching career. He was an academic mess, sporting a GPA of under 1.0 which was largely an indicator of his sporadic attendance, not his ability. If my memory serves me correctly, he auditioned for my select high school choir (at the urging of his sister) at the beginning of his junior year. Tall, slight and awkward, he had a beautiful, natural baritone voice. I eagerly enrolled him in my class. And again, if I am still recalling things correctly, he never missed a class meeting. His reluctant attendance throughout the rest of his schedule also improved. I will forever recall our conversation when he said: “I come to school because of choir. And, I figured, that as long as I’m here, I might as well go to my other classes.” He graduated. I pray he’s had a productive life.

Here’s the point. Being in this class, among students of similar interests and aspirations, was enough to motivate him to slog through what had otherwise been a meaningless, irrelevant experience for him. Through the arts he found a reason, a purpose and a bit of self-actualization to come closer to reaching his potential. I’m proud that I had the privilege to offer a small influence on his personal trajectory. And, I know his experience is not unique.

The arts support overall academic and personal achievement.

“Arts education has been linked to not only higher GPAs and SAT scores but lower suspension and dropout rates. What’s more, young people who study the arts consistently demonstrate higher levels of empathy, social tolerance and civic engagement. Are any qualities more needed in the United States right now?” (Gehry and Shriver, Time, 12/21/2020)

Imbedded in a promise . . .

The incoming national administration was elected largely on the promotion of two key platforms: 1) the need to “Build Back Better” and 2) restoring the soul of America. Advocates for a high quality system of public education need to hold our new leaders to these aspirational promises. If we are indeed serious about restoring the soul of our nation as we build back better, we had better be sure to include the arts as a vehicle of understanding and healing in every classroom across America. Music needs to be imbedded in the study of mathematics. Any survey of history or social studies that does not include the influence of the arts is outrageous. The symmetrical beauty of the arts and the sciences should be obvious, and the connections should be made deliberately. How can we study world languages if we ignore the role of the arts in societal identities?

If we’re sincere in a quest of restoring a more civil, informed and “soulful” country, the arts need to resume their rightful place as a cornerstone of defining who we are and who we aspire to be.

It is my fervent belief that we have the ability to build back a better and more relevant system of public education. I hope that we possess the collective will. Assuming that we do have the will to take decisive action to improve this system for the children of our nation, opportunities in the arts must play a prominent role. Kids will benefit in so many ways: intellectually, emotionally, in their understanding of a global perspective, and the development of social responsibility and empathy. And, it would represent a huge step toward restoring the soul of our nation. Above all else, no further reason or rationale needed, it’s what kids deserve.

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