The last couple of weeks, two interesting news stories that shared conflicting perspectives of the arts were reported on the NBC Nightly News. The first report told the story of a failing school in Boston that was turned around when the principal chose to eliminate the funding that customarily subsidized the security force and invest it in the arts. This move that some considered controversial at Orchard Gardens , a school in Roxbury, MA, resulted in one of the fastest student improvement rates statewide. The other anecdotal evidence that students, teachers, and the principal shared during the report reinforced evidence that arts advocates have always had statistics to support: students who study the arts in school perform better in the classroom and demonstrate more prosocial behavior. As an arts advocate, this feel good story tugged at my heart strings. I was satisfied that this principal’s quest to prove the value of the arts in education proved fruitful. As a former teacher in schools like Orchard Gardens, I was delighted to see a failing school turned around.
The second report featured the retailer, The Children’s Place, and the demands to stop selling a girls t-shirt after complaints that it portrayed a sexist stereotype. The shirt said “my best subjects,” and featured checkboxes next to shopping, music, dance, and math. The boxes next to shopping, music, and dance contained checks while the box next to math was empty. While the controversy surrounding the shirt was motivated by individuals who viewed the shirt as sexist—and I am not denying that it was sexist–I was also bothered by the fact that it trivialized dance and music as core subject areas. By selling such a product, The Children’s Place and the t-shirt designer communicated that young women are intellectually inferior to their male peers and that studying the arts is equivalent to shopping.
While the first news report portrayed the type of story that supports the work arts advocates do in this country, the second illustrates the need for continued dialogue with those who fail to understand the value of the arts in education—even if the faux pas was unintentional. While there are many ways to approach the dialogue of why students benefit from studying the arts with statistics and research to support this perspective, lately I have been thinking of a more straightforward point of entry into the conversation that might resonate with multiple audiences: engagement in the arts can lead to happiness. While approaching a conversation about the value of the arts in education with the idea that it makes us happy might sound facetious, I think it might help develop some common ground between those advocating on behalf of the arts and those who need to be more receptive to the idea that engagement in the arts leads to success in other academic subjects and life.
The research of Mihaly Cszikzentmihalyi supports such a claim. Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow is the secret to happiness. Human beings achieve a state of flow when they are engaged in a focused task to the point where they lose themselves the task due to intense focus. Having involvement in such creative activities like the arts help individuals attain happiness in other areas of their lives. While this summary of Csikszentmihalyi’s research does not do it justice, watching his TED talk and reading his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience will make up for my brevity here.
The point that I am trying to make is that we need to catalog and share our feel good stories since not all of them will be on the NBC Nightly News. Arts educators regularly see such transformations in their students that are motivated by involvement in the arts. We need to collect these stories and know that they capture the essence of what we aim to accomplish. While the t-shirt being sold at the Children’s Place indicated that dance and music are fun, it sent the wrong message. The arts are not frivolous activities. Instead, it is the challenges that are encountered and surmounted during the creative process that contribute to the happiness felt during artistic activity.