As Art Goes, So Go Our Schools

Michelangelo wasn’t much of a student by today’s standards. He showed no talent or interest in core subjects, and he was eventually apprenticed at a young age.

He was one of the great geniuses our planet has ever known — in any field. And if Michelangelo was a student in American schools today, we wouldn’t call him a genius. We’d call him something else – a failure.

We’d call him a failure because he didn’t test well in math. We’d call him a failure because he’d rather draw than read. We’d persist in our ignorance, no matter how much skill Michelangelo showed as an artist.

Because, after all, being skilled at art no longer counts for much. We’d prefer Michelangelo was an average mathematician than an artistic genius. Our schools are practically told by federal and state regulations to make that unfortunate choice every time.

If this sounds personal to me, it is. I have been fortunate to spend my career as a public school teacher and to have attained undergraduate and graduate degrees.

But I can promise you that things could have gone very differently for me without art. As I look back at my childhood demographics, I had “achievement gap” written all over me.

I was raised by a very busy single parent in a lower-income household. No one from my family had ever attended college. I didn’t start school with some of the foundational advantages that many of my students start with today.

I didn’t love math and wasn’t a voracious reader. But I loved to draw – and I could do it better than any of my classmates. It was through my artwork that my teachers began to realize I was smart.

It was through my talent in art that I realized I was smart.

My self confidence came from art. I used that self confidence to thrive in other subjects, such as math, reading, science and history.

And I can’t help but wonder, in this era of No Child Left Behind, how many children we’re leaving behind as we callously slash art and music programs at our schools.

I wonder how many students, without access to art and music, will never have the opportunity to prove just how gifted they are. I wonder why more people don’t understand that art and music are more than expressions of emotion or talent – they are bona fide intellectual exercises.

If you were to take a heat map of my brain, you would see it most engaged when I am drawing or painting. I am thinking critically and employing creative problem solving. It’s a very intense thought process.

And it’s a type of thinking that we must never stop valuing, or our schools and students will suffer. As we narrow the curriculum at our schools, we’re depriving students of the intellectual engagement and academic benefits that accompany art and music training and appreciation.

I truly understand the importance of math and literacy. I teach math and literacy and there’s hardly a job in America where you won’t use both of those skills daily.

But the aspirations for our educational system must extend beyond math and reading. Our aspirations must extend beyond what we test. We must aspire to offer a diverse curriculum that nurtures and develops each student’s talent.

Because somewhere in our schools right now, we have the next Michelangelo sitting behind a desk, doodling and bored out of his mind. We’re calling him a failure — and he believes it.

And once you cut art class out of that student’s life, you’re removing perhaps his best opportunity to ever prove you wrong.

Nicole Sasso is a veteran elementary school teacher from Central Maryland.

Comments (26)

  1. I agree totally. I loved school, but my biggest love was being in the high school band! You had rules, you had to make good grades, you had amazing social interactions, got to visit other schools & festivals-gave me wonderful memories and the ability to play an instrument for life! I became and elementary teacher, have a B.S. and M.A. I have taught everything from K thru college and now, in my 30th year of teaching, I am teaching Pre-K/Special Ed. Music makes a connection where there was not much-it helps deyvelop language and art provides another way to express yourself!

  2. As an “artistically inclined” person, I can so appreciate your post. That was me as well. And yes…this is true for thousands and thousands of students. I’ve had the same concern you posted about for a very long time, and am so disappointed to see the lack of interest in support for art education. These are hard times we’re in. I hope many students have the the inspiration to create what they’re experiencing. It will define this generation.

  3. Arts education is very desperately needed in today’s society…the arts help us expand our way of thinking and expressing ourselves. The arts help us use our ‘affective’ as well as our cognitive minds, they help us to question, explore, discover, create, and reapply our knowledge to other areas of our lives. Music helps us to ‘think in motion -’ a skill our leaders need to work on…thinking on our feet, learning how to create change for the better as well as adapting to unexpected changes in our world. If we don’t learn how to ‘think creatively,’ I fear our society will just keep repeating old mistakes. We need arts education to help start the process of change that is necessary for us to create more sensitive human beings and thus a society that grows more adaptable, more caring, and simply smarter about the choices we make.

  4. As an Art Educator I want to thank you for this great article. I am feeling the support of my peers, students and parents of students, and now total strangers. Thank you very much. We can use all the encouragement we can get.

  5. Visual arts allow for intellectual creativity and exploration. We are not all wired similarly and therefore must provide all students the opportunity to explore their abilities.

  6. I once read somewhere, “if it not for Art and Music, what will we have to write about.”

    • Mr. Holland’s Opus!

  7. Creativity & critical thinking are key elements which are found at the highest level of all subjects. In art class students problem solve to produce a unique product. This happens on every level. Obviously, I value the arts and also see their benefit. I hope that visionaries also have the influence and power to open the eyes of politicians so that the Arts are valued by all.
    Thanks for your input!!

  8. So what can we do as individuals to change this? 30 minutes of recess a day? only 2 p.e. classes per week? Our kids are sitting in a classroom all day with a curriculum that is beyond their developmental abilities. It is like telling an infant to walk. Kindergarten children are still flipping letters at this developmental age, yet the teachers are forced to teach the impossible. A kid’s job is to play!!!! That is how they learn. The precious benchmark scores would soar, if the kids were tested after recess or P.E.
    Childhood is snuffed too early as it is, school should be a fun, safe place, not something that produces high anxiety and “what is the use?” attitude. What are your favorite elementary memories? Playing with friends at recess? Art projects? having the ‘Eureka’ experience when you learn something new? Mine is recess kickball with our Math teacher participating.

  9. This animated mini-lecture from RSA addresses education in the 21st century and Arts education.

  10. And let us not forget Einstein who “could not read” until he was eight.

    • Or talk till he was four.

  11. Thank you Nicole for this article. I have been an art educator for 25 years. I appreciate your thoughts on the importance of arts education in public schools. This is one article I will print and keep in my files.

  12. Well, I just have to say thanks for this post. I just lost my job for the 2nd time in 7 years of teaching. I am an art teacher in public school teaching 350 students a year. I survive off of about $1,000 of supplies a year. That doesn’t include free paper that we get from a doner. It doesn’t seem that the decision-makers are willing to believe the statistics about the arts raising test scores. I hope they eventually understand what price the students are paying by being denied the pleasure of personal expression and unique thought.

  13. As a music teacher, I pray I will have a job every year. Unfortunately in California, the arts are being cut so severely that when a professional family show came through our town they told us of trying to include music students in one of their shows in Sacramento, where they were unable to have students perform with them because the students simply did not exist.

    The real shame in all of this is that statistics and test scores show that if a child begins to learn to play and instrument or keyboard before age seven, that those students will score on average a grade level above in both math and language skills. Music creates neural pathways that are so important to learning other subjects. I believe in our system we have things all wrong. I think we should have 20 minutes of keyboarding class for all kindergarteners, and 30 minutes for all kids through 3rd grade. If we want kids to really excel then we need to provide for them the tools, and Music will give them the upper hand.

    The other thing that we neglect concerning the arts is for some kids, that is all that draws them to school, the only thing that causes them to want to be there. Each year I have students who say their only reason for coming to school is music, otherwise they would drop out. That is truly sad, but if their love of music keeps drawing them back to school, keeps them working to keep high enough grades to remain in their beloved class, then why do we insist that music, art and all the other things that cause kids to want to be at school should be done away with?

  14. As a retired art teacher who never quite fit into the mold, I am lucky to have had my wonderful career teaching kids back when people (somewhat) valued the field. Visual art and it’s benefits of intense focus, opportunity for creativity, self-expression and celebration of different learning styles should be available to everyone regardless of their economic class. Sadly, our fearless leaders are on a quest to make public schools grim places of punishment for teachers as well as students. After all, if they had any business taking art they should go to private school where people have the money to afford such things. I realize I sound bitter about the course our legislators have chosen, but I have become convinced they don’t really care about the breadth and wonder of our artistic heritage and culture, they are concerned about money and how to make more and art classes, along with public education, do not advance those abysmally ignorant goals. At this point, I can only hope that artists and teachers stick together and come up with some sort of solution for kids or our national genius will fade away.

  15. Without the arts, all we have are well educated barbarians.

  16. Dramatic, over simplified, and foundationally true. Unlike you, I do not work each day to “unearth” the next _________, but I find “the gift” for each student, and help them ask more from themselves. I value the processes to helping them function at a level of an self-evaluator as they do tasks.

    I am and will never be gifted, but I offer each of my students multiple ways to perform as if they were gifted through the day. I do start with their talents: friendship, talking, artistic eye, and go forward. The rarity of GIFTEDNESS to the standard you open your piece with is not replicated in 500 hundred years.

    So, I admire your effort in connecting the dots from Genius to attributes of academic success in home life to achievement gap to your artistic talent recognized and encouraged to undervaluing the arts, but those links have research. You should of cited research. You needed to maybe make a series of articles – one per major field of educational study you mentioned (or the “dots” I see that you connected).

    I think you have more to do. Build your arguement(s)- not with just emotion, but substantial educational research. Consider a book. Don’t rest on this article. It would be a shame if this was it, if this illumination of what substantially needs to be addressed by American Educators is only these words I critique.

  17. Well said! This letter should be sent to every legislator in the United States in hopes they will realize they know nothing about the workings of a classroom. Our children are not generic! When will someone ask me or my fellow teachers what needs to be done? People who have never served in the classroom continue to dictate to us. As an art teacher I made sure that each lesson was fun yet served as a learning experience for creative thinking. Art and music encompass reading, math, science, history, social studies, and languages. Art and music have it all!

  18. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important that knowledge.” We can focus on perfect scores in the core subjects, but what will we have produced? Will there be artists, poets? Will there be visionary scientists who will help us explore the cosmos or cure diseases? Will there be national leaders who are able to see the world and its people as a whole? Not likely. I teach junior high science, and am appalled that my students lack imagination and are bereft of curiosity. Not appalled at the students, but rather at a system that has neglected to foster these traits. I, too, spent hours drawing, and I, too, take every opportunity to include the arts in my curriculum. It works, people.

  19. Carla hit the nail right on the head. Too much pressure on kids at a young age and not enough fun in learning. I taught for 34 years and fought for years to keep Kdgn. education developmentally appropriate. The ARTS are an important part of learning and should be a daily part of learning.

  20. I find it difficult to articulate why the arts are imporant for students development and ability to express themselves. So much emphasis is places on assessment and testing, art is subjective and I feel difficult to measure. I am going to start my Master’s Thesis this week. I want to find empirical research that shows why the arts should be valued and not be cut from our students curriculum.
    Does anyone have good resources or jumping off points for this?

  21. There is no “one size fits all” logic to education”. I excelled in visual art, as a child, and because my parents were sensitive to my unique way of viewing and understanding the world, I was encouraged to learn how I learned best in all areas of study. I am, today, an art teacher and a professional artist with an advanced degree.
    I have many interests and I am a “life long learner”. My heart bleeds for children like me who are not recognized for their unique abilities or encouraged to be the person God made them.
    Art education is essential for everyone in order for us to understand each other, ourselves, and our world.

Post a new comment

Comment as a Guest, or Login:


displayed next to your comments.

If you have a website, link to it here.