The Hardheaded Case For Arts Education

Michael O’Hare wants more arts education in schools:

The research on this is long-standing and solid: the most important correlate of consumption of highbrow art is parental introduction to museums, theater, and concerts in childhood. Not much government can do about that, but the second is introduction to the arts in schools, especially hands-on learning, and the history of the last twenty years has been to trash this entire enterprise as a frill we “can’t afford”, along with physical education and sports for everyone. Why the things that make life worth living – art and health – are frills or optional in a sane, rich society, and why Venezuela can afford a national network of youth orchestras and we can’t, are mystifying, but here we are.

I think proponents of arts education sometimes undersell the value of their own case with this rhetorical register. Whether or not you think the arts are what makes “life worth living” skill in designing aesthetically pleasing objects is a very valuable skill in a modern economy. And of course while the future is hard to predict, I think technological progress will make that increasingly the case. It’s still most important for schools to try to make sure kids are graduating with the ability to read, write, and do math. But learning about visual arts seems to me to have a much clearer practical value than learning about history (and don’t get me wrong, I love history and hated my art classes) and is in many ways on a par with the STEM fields we’ve heard so much about in recent years. The challenge is that it’s only worth having arts education if kids are actually learning something as a result and it’s harder to come up with a reasonable way of assessing whether or not an arts program is working.