Why the Arts Matter

As we reflect on the past year and think about our resolutions for the next year. We thought it was important to reshare an article about the “importance of the arts” from our friends at the Dana Foundation:

The Dana Foundation has long been interested in education and the arts. The advent of the field of neuroeducation, or mind, brain, and education science, led to several free Dana publications, which are still available online and in print.

One of these resources, Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts, and the Brain, published in 2009, reprinted a keynote address given by Dana Alliance Member Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., of Harvard University. Kagan spoke to the educators attending a summit co-sponsored by The Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Neuro-Education Initiative on “Why the Arts Matter.”

As someone who took for granted the art and music classes offered throughout my public-school education and into college, his words have a great impact. Why should today’s students be the victims of budget cuts? Why shouldn’t they have the opportunity to sing and act and paint? Here is my favorite excerpt:

“When a dozen children or youth complete a mural or play an orchestral piece, the group, not the individual, is the target of praise. My friends who sing in choirs report their intense feeling of exhilaration when they are singing together in front of an audience. This emotion is not exactly like the feeling evoked when one receives a grade of 100 on a test. The problems facing the contemporary world demand some subversion of self’s interests in order to lift the interests of the larger community into a position of ascendance. Perhaps participation in a school orchestra is a useful preparation for the stance that will be required in this century.”

Moreover, writes Kagan, the arts could help close the achievement gap.

“If an arts program helped only one-half of the seven million children who are behind in reading and arithmetic by providing them with a sense of pride and the belief that they might have some talent, the high school dropout rate would fall. This program might also help children gain a richer appreciation of their emotional life and what it means to be human.”

In 2008, Dana published Learning, Arts, and the Brain, the culmination of three years of research at seven universities into how arts training affects the brain. Video of the researchers discussing their findings is available.

Some highlights of the research include:

  • An interest in a performing art leads to a high state of motivation that produces the sustained attention necessary to improve performance and the training of attention that leads to improvement in other domains of cognition.
  • Specific links exist between high levels of music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory; these links extend beyond the domain of music training.
  • Training in acting appears to lead to memory improvement through the learning of general skills for manipulating semantic information.
  • In children, there appear to be specific links between the practice of music and skills in geometrical representation, though not in other forms of numerical representation.
  • Correlations exist between music training and both reading acquisition and sequence learning. One of the central predictors of early literacy, phonological awareness, is correlated with both music training and the development of a specific brain pathway.

Summer [The New Year] is a wonderful time for exposing yourself to art. Go to a free play or concert in the park; take advantage of an air-conditioned museum; sign up for a class; or join a choir, orchestra, dance, or theater group. The evidence is in: the arts can do powerful things.

–Johanna Goldberg