The average life span of great civilizations is 215 years.[i] A first-rate arts education is one of the best means left to save our American experiment, now 241 years old. I’ve come to this conclusion over 15 years working with the Cathedral Arts Project, an organization whose mission is to enrich our quality of life through unleashing the creative spirit of young people.
When I first took this role, I didn’t give much weight to how the arts bolster our ability to see the world from other perspectives. Back then, the ways arts education improved academic achievement was top of mind. I assumed the increasing diversity of our society would automatically generate broader understanding and mutual respect. I was wrong.
Today, my perspective has changed. I have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of the arts for students, families and our community. Students who participate regularly in the arts show marked improvement in class participation, task completion, peer communication, and conflict management – but they also gain the insights, empathy and language needed to understand each other and, just as important, to understand themselves. As we celebrate National Arts & Humanities Month, it is my hope that the unique potential of arts education will help us achieve our country’s promise of E pluribus unum – out of many, one.
Seventy eight percent of Americans believe disrespect and political dysfunction prevent our nation from moving forward.[ii] A meta-analysis of 72 studies of 14,000 American college students between 1979 and 2009 revealed a drop of 40% in empathy scores.[iii] Since most of the drop occurred after 2000, the decline is undoubtedly steeper today.
It’s hard not to see a possible correlation between these findings and decreased access to arts education over the past several decades. Arts education has the potential, like nothing else, to mold both brains and hearts and open us to meaningful encounters where we look to not only our own interests, but also the interests of others.
Students in CAP’s ARTS Ignite! afterschool program begin each class by reciting a creed that involves five promises, the first of which is to “respect others and their ideas as I respect myself.” For our democracy to flourish, we must revive our ability to reason together and not merely tolerate, but respect one another – no matter what. As John Dewey put it, “Imagination is the chief instrument of the good.” How we treat another person and their ideas, he noted, is dependent upon our power to put ourselves “imaginatively” in another’s place.[iv]
In contrast, what lesson are we teaching our children when they see us unfriend someone on Facebook simply because we disagree with a post? That their perspective has no value? That they do not deserve our friendship, much less our respect?
While we can homogenize the opinions that show up on our social media feeds, living together peaceably and productively in the real world is only going to get more challenging. If Census Bureau estimates hold, in just 27 years, one-time minority groups will comprise the majority of Americans.
Arts education demands that we study what life looks like, sounds like, and feels like for others. It provides a structure to come together while holding different perspectives. In theatre, we walk in another person’s shoes. In visual arts, we study familiar images from unfamiliar perspectives. We learn to pause and look deeper rather than defaulting to lazy, habitual ways of seeing.
There is always another perspective, another interpretation, another form. Students learn not only through their own cognition and creative process, but also through their peers.
Arts education promotes ways of thinking that support curiosity and openness. As we grow older and become set in our ways, this shift can often feel like too much. But if we encourage children to think this way – before rigid, binary ways of seeing the world in black and white take hold – it’s a mindset that will stay with them the rest of their lives.
Furthermore, through arts education, we learn the important life skill of critique. Can you imagine what it would be like if a critical mass of us knew how to give and receive respectful, constructive feedback? It would surely be a significant step forward in our life together where basic human decency is often hard to spot.
While a healthy democracy requires strong convictions and healthy debate, it requires much more. Arts education is the key. Aristotle said we need art because we have not lived enough. The arts can reposition us in others’ worlds, or even our own, long enough to glimpse something we hadn’t noticed before. And that just might be our salvation – as individuals and as a civilization.
[i] Samuel Arbesman, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
[ii] National Institute for Civil Discourse, The University of Arizona, 2017.
[iii] Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” Sara Konrath, University of Michigan, 2010.
[iv] John Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 362