Students paint at Mifflin Park Elementary School in Cumru Township, Penn., on Oct. 7. Credit - Ben Hasty—MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images
Between months of a pandemic, years of political hostility and centuries of racism, mending America’s wounds will be the work of many hands. In his first 100 days, President-elect Joe Biden should empower school-age children—no fewer than one in six Americans—to help heal themselves, one another and their communities by restoring the arts to our education system.
There’s no time to waste. No different than grown-ups, kids today are walled in, lacking human interaction and adrift in anxieties that nobody should have to worry about. Researchers are tracking a global surge in the number of young people reporting symptoms of clinical depression. And to make matters worse, school-based mental health services are hamstrung.
The good news is we can help young people to not only express and channel difficult emotions, but also to find their spirit’s song. Painting and ceramics, music and dance, photography and film—these aren’t merely hobbies; they are some of humankind’s most liberating pathways to creativity and catharsis. Anyone who’s stood before an ancient sculpture and felt wonder, or listened to a piece of classical music and felt peace, or gazed at a Renaissance painting and experienced the sublime grasps the power of art to transmit emotion across the ages. And arts like architecture and design teach us to imagine and create a future all of us can share.
Nothing moves us like art.
Yet, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, schools nationwide were rolling back arts education. Now that schools are bootstrapping themselves through the most challenging school year in recent memory, the arts could be on their way to permanent “extracurricular” status.
For students, teachers, parents—for all of us—this is a giant leap backward, not least because studies have shown that students who have the arts included in their core curriculum also see improvement in reading and math. Arts education has also 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?
It is no coincidence that students at the lowest-performing schools in the country don’t have access to the arts. As the shift to digital learning widens the educational equity gap, the arts can give the most disadvantaged students a fighting chance to succeed. Indeed, we’ve seen it firsthand.
We’re part of a nationwide effort to integrate the arts across our education system. Here in California, we partner with 24 historically marginalized schools to harness the arts for transformation. In every case, we’ve been inspired by the changes we’re tracking. Young people who might have fallen through the cracks academically or socially find their voices and make themselves heard. Parents report that arts programs make schools feel tighter knit and more inclusive. Teachers say the arts help them connect across disciplines—bringing music into math class, sculpture into social studies, drawing into science and more. Ninety-eight percent of teachers in our partner schools tell us that the arts had a positive or very positive impact on their students during this challenging year.
As advocates, we see that arts education is an antidote to the narrow curricula, rote memorization and overreliance on high-stakes testing that leave too many teachers questioning their calling, and too many students unseen. As human beings, we thrill to the excitement, joy and fun that the arts bring to the experience of learning, teaching and growing.
And just as the arts can revive a school’s community, so too they can help restore our nation’s soul. That’s why the job of making arts accessible to young people starts at the top. President-elect Biden should heed the call to appoint a Secretary of Arts and Culture, who can help ensure that building back better means building back room for creative self-expression. Federal, state and local officials must work together to fund arts programs, hire more arts teachers and buy more musical instruments and arts supplies. Finally, at home and in the classroom, teachers and parents need to hold each other accountable for giving kids the time, space and resources to dance, draw, paint and sing.
After all, our future doesn’t just include young people, it depends on them. It won’t be long before they step out of their childhoods and into our increasingly troubled world. If we want them to have the creative powers necessary to solve the problems we’re leaving behind, then now more than ever, students need the arts.