Arts education makes us better people

If you watched television in the 1980s, you may remember a commercial for a Broadway musical in which a theater patron exclaims after watching a show: “I laughed! I cried! I would see it again and again!” On a recent weekend when I saw my ninth grade daughter in her school’s production of “The Three Musketeers,” I felt a kinship with that exuberant fan. It was not just the quality of the production or a father’s pride in his daughter’s performance that left me inspired; it also was that it served as a powerful reaffirmation of my belief in arts education.

For my daughter and her cast mates, putting on the play was a very meaningful learning experience. They had to grapple with the challenging language and historical context of a play adapted from a 19th century French novel and set in the 17th century. The cast had to memorize lines, execute polished delivery, and master the choreography of sword fights, dances and slapstick humor.

These things required practice — the invaluable skill of doing something repeatedly that is at first unfamiliar and difficult, receiving feedback, and refining one’s approach so that success can be achieved.

The arts demand and teach self-discipline, perseverance, openness and the value of hard work. Arts education also unlocks creativity and self-expression.

From the Rochester School of the Arts in New York, to the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts — a GRAMMY Signature School winner — to once struggling schools experiencing an academic renaissance thanks to the Kennedy Center’s TurnAround Arts program, I have spoken with countless students who described how arts education changed their experience of school and their lives.

For students who find it hard to say everything they want in an essay, the arts can help them demonstrate what they know. For students who have endured trauma, the arts can be a vehicle to process their pain and rediscover strength. For students who are outraged by injustices in their country or communities, the arts can help them express their truth. Even for students who never aspire to perform on Broadway or play Carnegie Hall, arts education can help them tap into their spirit and engage with the world.

I also appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of arts education.

When I was a social studies teacher, I loved teaching a unit on the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance through the lens of artistic expression. Students could see the migration unfold in Jacob Lawrence’s paintings. They could explore powerful messages conveyed through Augusta Savage’s sculptures and Aaron Douglas’ illustrations. They could hear African-Americans’ resolve in the face of lynching and racial violence in the poetry of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes. Students could admire the beauty of African Americans’ everyday life through James Van Der Zee’s photography. And they could hear the Harlem Renaissance through Duke Ellington’s songs and Bessie Smith’s lyrics.

Immersion in these media deepened my students’ understanding of the nuances of American history and inspired them to express their own perspectives on contemporary social justice issues.

I regret that I never learned to play an instrument and that I cannot draw much more than stick figures, but I am deeply grateful for the role that arts education has played in my own life. Growing up, as I dealt with the trauma of losing both my parents due to illness and then struggled with adult authority, receiving a well-rounded education, including the arts, from outstanding teachers saved my life. And being on theater crew for musicals like “Grease” and “Godspell” and performing in plays helped ground me in a supportive community of peers and adults.

As an educator and parent, I appreciate how the arts have engaged and motivated my students and my daughters. But not every student in Maryland or other areas across the country has access to rich learning experiences in the arts. That must change.

So, at my daughter’s high school play, I laughed and I cried, and I reflected on my appreciation for the arts and how they move the world. Because how could one not be moved by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance in “Hamilton” or Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits or Yo-Yo Ma’s cello music?

And if each of us can be moved by art to connect more deeply with our own humanity and that of the artist, then arts education can help us better understand one another, make us more thoughtful citizens, and offer us profound hope.

John B. King Jr. is former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration and president and CEO of The Education Trust. His quarterly guest column will run every other Sunday through mid January. His email is John.King@edtrust.org; Twitter: @JohnBKing.

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