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Arts education is key component of development

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on May 31, 2012)

Between budget cuts, standardized tests, and No Child Left Behind, many advocates have expressed concern that arts education is suffering in our public schools.

So it was welcome relief in April when the National Center for Education Statistics released data that paint a picture less dire than expected. From 1999-2000 to 2009-10, the availability of music instruction in elementary schools remained the same at 94 percent. Visual arts instruction declined modestly from 87 to 83 percent.

Among secondary schools, music instruction during the decade increased from 90 to 91 percent. Again, visual arts instruction dropped somewhat, from 93 to 89 percent.

While dance and drama declined significantly in elementary schools, these arts are often incorporated into other subject areas. Both dance and drama/theatre were more available at the secondary level.

The good news is that although there continue to be gaps in the availability of the arts between low-poverty and high poverty schools, these gaps narrowed over the decade. Even so, far too many children in our public schools are still going without meaningful arts education. Every generation must decide what it wishes to pass on to the next; what we teach reflects what we value. I am often amazed to think that here in Tennessee we are custodians of a triple musical legacy. Our heritage includes not only the country music of Nashville but the bluegrass and Appalachian music associated with East Tennessee and the blues of Memphis, not to mention the rich heritage of classical music. Ours is an abundant musical ecosystem.

But if we fail to pass on an appreciation for and facility with music or the other arts, we will deprive our children of part of what it means to be human, and to be expressive. We also deny them opportunities to build their creative muscles.

Summer is a good time for enriching children’s lives with the arts. And I don’t mean by dropping them off at the movie theater. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Metro Parks and Recreation, Nashville Children’s Theatre and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts all sponsor various types of arts camps, as do numerous other local organizations, private schools and universities. And there are numerous concerts and other events that are often free.

Policy makers talk a lot about the importance of math and science education, and with good reason. But important as these subjects are, employers still look to hire well-rounded people who can understand complexity, work creatively in groups, and express themselves. Experience with the arts bestows all of these.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.