Review of Why Our
Schools Need The Arts
Why Our Schools Need The Arts
by Jessica Hoffman Davis
Published by Teachers College Press: New York, January 2008 (150 pp)
It’s time to stop justifying the arts because they can help our children do better on their SATs or other standardized tests, urges Jessica Hoffman Davis in this impassioned, if slender, volume.
As a long-time arts educator and advocate, Davis—a cognitive developmental psychologist and founder of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—argues that “when explaining or defending the role of the arts in education, we should resist the temptation to package the arts as in-service to non-arts subjects—as a way to help teach math or chemistry or physics.”
Amen to that. As the parent of two academically strong students, I know that the lessons they learned as actors in our local high school’s drama program offered skills that they access almost daily in college and beyond. The camaraderie they developed playing cello in the school’s orchestra, and their appreciation as concertgoers, transcended whatever slim talent they had as musicians (in fact, given the recognition they received for their academic performance, it was good for their souls to gain humility in the orchestra).
Beyond such life lessons, Davis wants educators and parents to recognize that in this age of standardized testing, the arts can’t be relegated to half hour weekly time slots, or after-school enrichment. The arts are not a frill—an argument that is made with distressing regularity during school budget season here in the suburbs—but an essential component in education.
“Arts in our schools are essential,” Davis writes. “They shed light on and give direction to the foundations that science provides.” She explains that arts’ use of metaphor, willingness to consider uncertainty and ambiguity, or break boundaries, suggest other ways of interpreting the world that can employed just as successfully in science. The arts enable us to make sense of our experiences in ways that transcend conventional disciplines.
Davis also contends that schools need to treat the arts with as much respect as they do such core subjects as math or reading (and explores why arts got relegated to “extra” status in the first place). Too many schools, she says, offer arts only as an extra, or extra-curricular activity. Instead, Davis writes, “The statement that schools make by including the arts in the curriculum is clear”—that they matter.
And they matter because they aren’t like social studies, or biology, or English. For many students, the art studio, or band room, or theater, are the only places in school where they feel successful or valued for the talents they can contribute there.
Davis also suggests that the arts serve a valuable function by being a place where otherwise successful students fail—and that failure is as much a teachable moment as any success can be. I still remember my misery in art class, relegated to the back of the room where my pitiful efforts at copying the still life at the front were ignored or dismissed by our private school art teacher. Never mind that success came easily (perhaps too easily) in other areas; my failure as an art student helped me learn compassion for others’ struggles in other areas, and taught me how to work hard for an uncertain outcome.
As Davis writes, “Why this emphasis on success as the optimal and necessary outcome? Do we learn and grow from our successes? Can we ever realistically assess our performance if we fear mistakes and failure? Don’t all our children deserve the opportunity to experience failure in a medium that invites revision and growth? The arts offer children positive experiences with failure, invaluable experiences with setting the bar higher than we can reach, with knowing that the passion lies in the attempt, not the realization, that failure can be clarifying and generative, that ‘failure’ is part of a process in which I am involved, not a product that you can call me.”
This book needs to be read by school leaders and administrators, as well as its obvious audience of arts teachers. With any luck, Davis’s message will change the paradigm through which the arts have been seen in our education system, and a new conversation can take place#