Thursday, September 6, 2012
They found that art is an important tool for helping students succeed. Without art, we only use the left side of our brain.
A long time ago, on an island far away, my mother insisted I become a teacher. I didn’t care if the Palisades crumbled right down into the Hudson River, I intended to follow my dream and be an artist. Still, I knew she had a point. I would need a steady income because the art business, like the oil business, tends to be all chicken today and tail feathers tomorrow.
Now you have to remember, this was back in the olden days when girls had few career options. Hard to imagine now, but a girl’s choices were seriously limited. Women could become nurses, secretaries, or teachers. If we didn’t do our homework and study hard, we could wind up working behind the counter at the dime store.
I tend to faint at the sight of blood, so that ruled out a career in nursing. I’ve never been particularly good at taking orders, certainly not dictation, so the secretary thing wasn’t ever going to happen. That was when my mom told me about living through the Great Depression when she was a girl. You know the one? Stock Market Crash? 1929? Breadlines? Brother Can You Spare a Dime? You read about all that in your history books.
She told me that during the Great Depression, when the world had completely fallen to pieces, New York City did not lay off one teacher. Not one. Teachers might have been paid in scrip. Their classrooms might have used tattered, old textbooks and bookshelves made out of orange crates, but they did not lose their jobs. Everybody knew that teachers were too important to lose. Teaching is the world’s most honorable career. Educating its children is the most important way for a civilization to survive. Public schools open the doors to the future for everyone. Public schools were, and still are, the hope and dream of America.
So my life was set in motion. I figured I was a strong kid from the Bronx. I could manage two careers, no problem. I would be a working artist with museum and gallery shows, and I would help a whole generation of kids learn something about art. At first, I taught art to wonderful children in public schools, and now I teach art to wonderful grown-ups in grown-up classes.
When I was growing up, the arts were an important part of education. We used those long, skinny boxes of Prang watercolors to paint on manila paper. We used tempera paint on brown wrapping paper to create exotic murals to illustrate geography and history. The manila paper was too absorbent for watercolors, and the tempera paint would go hard and smelly overnight, but we had the chance to make art.
We sang, and we learned all the words to the “Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” and any number of other important songs. We had music appreciation classes where we heard the good stuff played on tinny record players.
We grew up with that unfinished Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington hanging in our classrooms. The Father of Our Country looked mighty serious. His bright eyes were watching everyone to be sure we were all honest, kind, generous and patriotic.
Right there above the chalkboard, in the space on top of the long green line of properly formed letters of the alphabet, we saw selections from the World Famous Paintings Series including Pinkie and Blue Boy. In spite of what we thought, these two were not brother and sister. They didn’t even know each other. Pinkie was a portrait of Sarah Goodin Barrett. She was painted in 1794 by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Blue Boy is a portrait of Jonathan Buttall. It was painted in 1779 by Thomas Gainsborough.
Among other paintings in that series were the Boy with a Rabbit, an 1814 portrait by Henry Raeburn Inglis, and Gleaners, painted in 1857 by Jean-François Millet.
Fast forward to 2012. These days, our public schools are running out of money. In 2011, for the first time since WWII, the Texas Legislature took huge sums of money away from the public schools. Faced with a $27 billion state budget shortfall, the Legislature cut four billion dollars in funding for school districts during the following two years.
How does that affect our children? Those classes which don’t appear on the all-important mandatory tests have either been abandoned or are quietly neglected. To cut their budgets, some school districts have even been forced to eliminate teaching jobs. Some found ways to replace qualified, experienced teachers with less qualified, less experienced teachers who can be paid less. Can any sane person seriously consider a teacher’s pay to be unreasonably high?
Certain politicians, as well as some cash strapped school administrators, vow long and loud that they will cut out all “frills,” proudly announcing they are going to stick with the “basics” of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic.”
Okay fine. These subjects are, in fact, the basic building blocks on which education can start to happen. These are the foundations for learning geography, history, science, mathematics, languages, art, music, drama and literature. In other words, the “basics,” are just what they say. They are basic.
However, the “basics” are only the starting point for teaching the next generation to become the kind of adults who can think independently and make important decisions because they understand about the culture of western civilization. If the bare basics are all we care to give our children, we have not educated them. If we don’t educate our children, we are guilty of neglect.
Art, music, and literature are not “frills.” Libraries and librarians are important. Art and music programs are necessary in young children’s lives. Research shows that the arts are critical to early childhood development. They influence learning as well as creativity and imagination. More than that, the arts actually improve test scores on other subjects such as math and science.
It’s been proven that early exposure to the arts supports activity in the brain. In 2008, “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” a three year study by neuroscientists from seven leading universities across the United States, examined the effects of art, music, dance, and drama on other kinds of classes. The study was conducted by the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Oregon, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto at Scarborough (formerly at Dartmouth College).
They found that art is an important tool for helping students succeed. Without art, we only use the left side of our brain. Art allows us to use our whole brain. Students who have access to art education develop attention skills and ways to retrieve memory that help them understand other subjects, from math and science, to language arts and geography.
The arts are not a “frill.” Their special magic encourages our future scientists and mathematicians to be able to compete with well-educated people from other countries. More than that, art has a special value of its own. The arts have a way of sticking with you.
Art appreciation classes introduced us to the Old Masters and even some not so old masters. Music appreciation classes let us remember that Paderewski wrote “The Minuet in G.” The Swan was written by Camille Saint-Saëns, and Mickey Mouse did not write The Sorcerer’s Apprentice any more than the Lone Ranger wrote the William Tell Overture. Even after all these years, we may not remember the capital of Botswana, but we remember the words to the “Star Spangled Banner.” We will always remember that music and those paintings.
Jan Statman is an artist, author, poet, playwright, art teacher and TV interviewer. She is listed in Who’s Who in American Art, Who’s Who of American Women, Who’s Who in the Arts, Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Dictionary of International Biography, and other biographical references.