Last year brought more than one occasion to mourn the passing of an era with the deaths of notable figures, from scientists to musicians to elected officials.
These individuals’ ways of making their mark in the world were grounded in virtues not routinely cultivated in schools today. Whether in the lab, on stage or at a negotiating table, they exemplified behavior anchored in an understanding that there are always alternative and valid ways to see the world.
While they were no doubt shaped by myriad forces, arts education played a role. They benefitted from not only the opportunity but also the insistence of serious study in the arts, either in private schools or in public schools before the arts and classics were removed as essential parts of the curriculum. Their education in the arts helped make them who they were.
Whether George H.W. Bush’s manner of putting himself in the shoes of other nations’ leaders or Stephen Hawking’s quest for truth, beauty and goodness, these are qualities arts education develops.
Often, we think of arts education in relation to creative thinking. To many, it is exactly this talk of innovation that stokes fears of overshadowing what was good about the past.
But while arts education powers innovative thinking, the arts are also unsurpassed conservators of the past. There’s nothing better than arts education to reclaim virtues in imminent threat of extinction. Virtues – such as empathy, curiosity and humility – that underpin all true progress. Virtues whose loss should cause us all to fear.
When kids engage in a rigorous study of the visual and performing arts, they develop habits of mind that stick with them for life. As we begin a new year, there’s nothing more important for us to teach students. Nothing.