Commentary on Arts in Education
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
These lines speak to the impossibility of separating what we do from who we are and suggest that knowledge not lived, might not be real knowledge at all.
Vermont is in the midst of an important conversation about the future of education in our state. Funding mechanisms, consolidation, universal Pre-K, everything seems to be on the table. Poets are rarely consulted on large policy decisions, but in this case, I think we might do well to listen to Yeats, who once said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.”
We all know that skills in advanced math and science will be critical for students in our increasingly technological society. But I would argue that health, the humanities, and the arts will be equally important, because fields of knowledge are not discrete objects that can be purchased – whether off the shelf or online. They’re complex, interconnected, ways of being. Imagine asking Leonardo Di Vinci to choose between AP calculus and studio art. Or for a more contemporary example, Steve Jobs.
Unfortunately, even though Vermont’s newly adopted Education Quality Standards state that students should have equitable, rigorous, and relevant opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in the arts, that ideal is far from realized. According to educational census data, nearly all of the public schools in Vermont have some kind of visual arts program, but only about half of them employ a full-time art teacher – or a full-time music teacher. And almost none of them employ a full-time theater or dance teacher. Yet there’s ample research demonstrating the positive effects of the arts on students’ social, emotional, and intellectual growth – especially students from low-economic backgrounds.
If we truly believe that to succeed in the 21st century students will need to be creative, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and resilient, we simply can’t afford to marginalize the arts – and the way many people think about them must change. The arts aren’t just nice; they’re necessary.
Not every child taking a dance class will become a dancer. But some might, and even more will, like the speaker in Yeats’s poem, have the chance to fully realize themselves as human.