When the National Endowment for the Arts recently released our report on the state of arts education in America, I called it "an open letter to the American people," the spark for some much-needed debate on the role of the arts in our nation's schools.
While the Deseret News May 8 editorial ("Is this how to promote the arts?") added valid points, it seems to me that the spark has created some random brushfires. Please allow me to respond."There are sharp limits to how many more tasks this nation's schools can be expected to perform, just as there are limits to the taxpayers' willingness and ability to foot the bill for new programs." - Deseret News
Our two-year study certainly bears witness to an overburdened educational system. Our recommendations are not to tax the system further.
Although our report - "Toward Civilization" - suggests that a seventh school period might be advisable in some high schools, for the most part, enhancing the study of the arts can be done within the existing school day.
Making the arts a basic part of the current curriculum will not require new dollars as much as it will require a new way of thinking.
Indeed, "Toward Civilization" found - surprisingly - that the time and resources committed to the study of the arts has been increasing in recent years. Unfortunately, that time and money is not buying as valuable an arts education as it should and could. The current emphasis on performing creating art needs to be broadened to include the history and critical theory of the arts.
"As technological and economic advances give Americans more leisure time, a knowledge and appreciation of the arts can help put that time to constructive use." - Deseret News
True enough, but to associate the arts with leisure time suggests that art is merely entertainment. Certainly the arts are meant to entertain, but study of the arts provides students with an understanding of them that is valuable in other ways.
The arts are guideposts to civilization. Through their study, students get a sense of their own civilization and of those who have contributed to ours.
Arts education provides a greater capacity for creativity, especially in the sense of problem solving and reasoning. It helps improve communication skills - verbal and non-verbal - particularly in an age where images on television are a principal means for communicating.
"People need more than food and shelter; they also need the beauty and regeneration that art can provide." - Deseret News
It would be difficult to imagine a world without art - not just painting or dance or music, but architecture, design and the media arts. But the world needs art for more than its sheer beauty.
We do not propose a sequential arts curriculum simply by reason of the aesthetic pleasures derived from the arts. The arts should be studied by all students - not just the gifted or college bound - because they are vital to our children's development. Do we require math only for those students who are good at it? Yet, the last rewards of arts education can be just as valuable as math or English or history.
"The National Endowment's indictment of America's supposed cultural illiteracy is far too sweeping. It ignores the immense growth in public enthusiasm for the arts that has already taken place . . . Americans must be doing something right when it comes to the arts." - Deseret News
They certainly are. In fact, our own surveys underscore many of the statistics cited by the Deseret News: the arts outpacing the NFL and so on.
But an Endowment poll also found that 61 percent of American adults failed in that year to attend a single performance of classical music, jazz, opera, theater, musical theater or ballet, or visit a single art museum or gallery.
Ironically, over the past five years, the state of Utah has shown unparalleled leadership in raising the level of arts education in its schools.
As a result of state-wide public hearings, the Utah Board of Education now requires 1 1/2 credits in the arts for high school graduation. It also included arts education in the basic K-8 core curriculum.
All in all, the state has shown progressive insight in addressing many of the issues which "Toward Civilization" raises.
Thus, it would seem the citizens of Utah are themselves providing a resounding response to the Deseret News editorial question, "Is this how to promote the arts?" The answer I hear is "yes."
(Frank Hodsoll, Washington, D.C., is chairman of The National Endowment for the Arts.)