The arts can be a source of joy in a child’s day, and also come in handy for memorizing times tables.
By Perri Klass, M.D.
March 4, 2019
In “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s 1943 autobiographical novel about growing up poor in the early 20th century, the public school that the heroine attends is a pretty bleak place. But “there was a great golden glory lasting a half-hour each week when Mr. Morton came to Francie’s room to teach music.”
He taught them classical music, the book continues, without telling them what they were learning, setting his own words to the great works. “Little boys whistled part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony as they played marbles. When asked the name of the song, they’d reply ‘Oh, “Going Home.”’ They played potsy, humming ‘The Soldiers’ Chorus’ from Faust, which they called ‘Glory.’”
Francie also looked forward to the visits of the drawing teacher; “these two visiting teachers were the gold and silver sun-splash in the great muddy river of school days.”
Arts education in schools has introduced many children to great painters and great music, and helped them through their first dance steps or tentative musical endeavors. It can serve as a bright spot in the schoolchild’s day or week, a class that brings in beauty, color and joy, and which is not about testing.
These subjects are often under threat either from budget cuts or from the inexorable demands of academic testing and “accountability,” but insights from neuroscience suggest that arts education can play additional important roles in how children learn.
Paul T. Sowden, a professor of psychology at the University of Winchester in England, warned that in Britain, as in the United States, arts and humanities subjects have suffered in recent years as the emphasis shifted to science and technology. It’s important, he said, that arts education be available equally to everyone. But arts education, he said, is a chance to build resilience and determination in children, as well as to help them master complex skills.