High school students need to study the fine arts

Putting on plays, performing great orchestral works, producing Broadway musicals, hoisting sculptures on pedestals, hanging paintings on the walls—these are some of the things schools across America, the good ones, do every day. By incorporating the fine arts into a well-rounded education for students, our best schools build core values, friendships, and traditions as well.


Student artwork on display Tuesday, window front, Maryland State Department of Education (Voxitatis)

Yet many schools in America have no fine arts offerings to speak of. Others cut fine arts programs, often as a precursor to closing the school to make way for charter schools in the neighborhood. Reducing the fine arts programming has a way of making students like going to school less, which can give leaders a good reason to shut the school down.

You may have noticed in April the publication of this year’s Challenge Index from US News & World Report. Jay Mathews, a writer for the Washington Post and US News, created a deceptively simplistic formula for determining how well a high school challenges students to achieve greater academic success. Voxitatis sometimes reports the index, but I don’t hold it in very high regard, one of the big reasons being the formula:

C = \frac{a}{g}

where C is the Challenge Index, a is the number of Advanced Placement tests taken by students, and g is the number of graduates that year from the high school.

Not only does this formula effectively reward the unacceptable attrition rates at many of the schools that have the highest Challenge Index, but it also fails to account for the quality of life for students at the high schools. There are a few AP tests in fine arts courses, but the number of schools that offer them is low, compared to the number of schools that offer AP exams in math, history, science, and literature.

Judging a school through such a narrow-pass lens completely dismisses the “well-rounded” education the Every Student Succeeds Act from Congress told schools to provide for students. Of course, fine arts programming isn’t the only area that makes a child’s education more well-rounded—computer science, PE, and foreign language count as well, for example—but participation in a healthy fine arts program brings other rewards for students.

Writing in Wolf Prints, the student newspaper at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, Illinois, Talija Tiskus and Allison Mattran explain some of the other benefits a good fine arts curriculum brings to high school students. With their permission and that of the paper’s faculty adviser, we are pleased to reprint their article here.

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.

Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, ca. 350 B.C.

THE FINE ARTS are considered something of a luxury way too often. The fine arts are not some frivolous plaything to be tossed about like an unwanted toy. For many people, it’s a passion, an outlet, a necessity, and even a career. What happens when you dismiss a student’s passion as merely a facetious ambition that will amount to nothing? What happens when you take it away? What happens when you take science away from a scientist?

The answer for all of these questions is the same: You take away what it means for people to be who they aspire to be, or what it means for them to be who they already are.

So, an important question must be asked: Are the fine arts as important to a student’s education as core classes? In a survey of 55 students Wolf Prints conducted over social media, two-thirds said yes, while the remaining one-third said no. The majority of students do agree that fine arts are a crucial part of a young person’s development. If such a significant number of students say this, why are fine arts programs in our schools always the first to get cut?

Art is how many people demonstrate their culture. For example, Native Americans paint, sing, dance, and tell stories as a part of their culture. These are all considered to be fine arts in today’s world. The fine arts have been and always will be a way for different cultures to manifest themselves.

Today, we use the arts to communicate in more ways than you may think: all those billboards, commercials, and radio advertisements that you see and hear everyday! What kind of work do you think went into those? Billboards are designed by graphic designers, commercials are written by screen and script writers, and the scenes are acted out by actors.

Furthermore, the arts are not only a cultural outlet, but they also help in a child’s early development. Everyone needs to develop motor skills, for example. Allowing a child to engage in an activity such as art gives that child a head start—they learn to use a pencil, markers, paints, paint brushes, scissors, and any other tool you choose to introduce. They’ll be able to learn to use them correctly and safely, fostering them to be neat, responsible, and safe in the future.

The visual and hands-on learning experiences that the arts can provide—through activities like drawing, painting, speaking, and acting out different scenarios—are capable of creating a difference in the classroom.

  • For teens, exposure to creativity fosters the development of more abstract thinking.

This mindset is very important: when faced with a problem, it’s easier to think of an out-of-the-box solution. A divergent way of thinking allows up-and-coming members of society (teenagers) to stand out and make a difference, thus becoming not only members of society, but functioning members of society.

  • Language development is vital to becoming a functioning member of society, and art is an effective way of channeling emotions and recognizing exactly what that emotion means.

By undertaking a hobby such as theater, students can learn how to read people’s emotions and react to them. Body language is a skill that students can learn through studying literature and acting. Humans use body language everyday, and being able to read and understand someone like this is imperative in any given situation, be it a job interview, a relationship, or just talking to people in general.

  • Participating in fine arts will take you far by teaching you skills that aren’t easily tested.

David Jensen, choir teacher for 20 years at Prairie Ridge, says the fine arts teach students about “teamwork, concentration, pattern analysis, how to control your breathing and your body, how to be able to hold someone’s attention for a long period of time, even when they don’t want their attention to be held. You can learn how to communicate emotions in a way that changes other people’s minds, which is a powerful tool … for business as well as a parent someday.”

Arts have the power to change the regular learning environment into one of discovery. They can reignite a love of learning. The majority of students are tired of just being fed facts and need something more.

Mr Jensen says that music is a “break in your day. You get a chance to express ideas and let out steam. Public education is [where] we gather hormonal, hyperactive children and we bottle them up for eight hours a day and give them a bunch of rules and the most compliant ‘win.’ The child who is able to retain the most and behave the best ‘wins’ at schooling.

“Music is different; the arts are different,” he continued. “Number one, you aren’t forced to be here, you get a chance to express yourself, and you get pushed, because we expect excellence from you and … there’s a community aspect to a class like this. There are all these benefits that come along with music. And I don’t know that academic pursuits have those same advantages.”

It’s important to engage students in their own education and keep them interested during class, because they will learn much more than they would if they were just sitting and listening to their teacher lecture. Teachers should be encouraged to change how they teach certain subjects—to be more hands-on and visual. This change can make all the difference in a student’s learning curve. Being able not just to listen but to do and see what’s being taught is not only more fun, but it also makes things infinitely easier to understand.

By being a part of creating anything, there are relationships that are intimate in a way that just regular interactions are not. And if you’re a part of completing some task together, that teamwork sensibility is going to be important. …

In a culture that tells us that we are independent and … it’s all about me, the arts do the exact opposite.

David Jensen, choir director at Prairie Ridge

In the long run, letting students engage in activities related to the arts will benefit them, not only emotionally and socially, but also academically. They give new meaning to the classroom and provide a creative outlet to express thoughts and feelings that can only be expressed creatively. All in all, they create a more well-rounded, mentally healthier student, and therefore will create a more well-rounded and healthy society.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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