Reclaiming Arts Education | City Journal
In an era of mass media, it’s getting harder to give great works the attention they deserve. But art still has much to teach us. Eighty percent of adults, according to a 2019 Ipsos poll, support arts education for children, but as of 2008 a slim majority of kids didn’t receive any.
If the fine arts still matter in today’s digitally minded society, how can we revitalize them? In a study published by the American Enterprise Institute, Soula Parassidis, a world-class soprano, and I make the case that the arts are integral to human flourishing and offer strategies for promoting them in today’s marketplace. We recognize that arts and music in popular culture are often substandard, but that’s no reason to abandon the fine arts altogether. We don’t dispense with mathematics when people misuse statistics; we shouldn’t let Mozart wither away because of the triviality of the Top 40.
Arts education is an important tool for cognitive and non-cognitive skill development among children, as empirical research from cognitive psychology and other social sciences demonstrates. For example, the discipline of learning an instrument is linked with lasting improvements in verbal and numerical literacy. Moreover, while musicians practice for hours independently, artists necessarily come together for rehearsals and performances, thereby promoting teamwork and coordination skills among participants. In part because of the amount of memorization involved, the arts stimulate areas of the brain vital for developing language and creative capabilities.
The arts also benefit society. By convening people with varied socioeconomic and political backgrounds though a shared devotion to principles recognized as beautiful and true, the arts can reduce political polarization and promote social capital—trust, norms, and networks—within communities. These are the ingredients for healthy living both individually and collectively.
As Heather Mac Donald and others have documented, the Left has politicized cultural institutions to a depressing degree. The solution, however, is not to disengage but to galvanize like-minded people willing to support the arts—and, in particular, arts education. In our report, we outline three policy recommendations to do this. First, we suggest that governors set aside part of their Covid-19 relief funding to sponsor arts competitions and provide grants to school districts that want to create or build out arts programming. Covid restrictions tanked the arts and culture sector and degraded educational quality; Covid relief funding could be used to expand artists’ opportunities and enhance educational services.
Second, states should offer vouchers that enable families to enroll their children in specialized arts-training programs. Despite widespread support, arts education has declined in public schools. By funding private art lessons, states could allow families to put their tax dollars toward broadening students’ opportunities. A voucher system could also help provide income to arts and music graduates—oversupplied in the labor market—as it would encourage them to take up gig work teaching to local students. In this way, vouchers would help improve education and strengthen community ties.
Third, state leaders should not be shy about linking the arts with patriotic and virtuous themes that inspire children to strive toward higher ideals. Intentional efforts to recognize our national roots, particularly within education, help strengthen cultural continuity. At the heart of many of today’s challenges lies the breakdown of fundamental axioms once taken for granted. An intentional stand for the arts must self-consciously defend them as a tool to inculcate appreciation for freedom, virtue, and liberty.