If Arts Education Is So Important, Why Do We Keep Defunding It?

These kids look like they're just playing, but they're both growing their brains and learning how to see the world around them. . (Photo: OlScher/Shutterstock)

Sometimes our culture baffles me. We seem to revere our great artists. We pay our favorite actors and musicians huge sums. So you'd think, as a society, we'd encourage and support children who are interested in the arts.

But it's the opposite: If kids want to pursue art, music, dance or other arts — and parents can't afford the programs that teach these skills — they may not be available at all.

While these subjects used to be well-covered in public schools, arts programs now are often the first on the budgetary chopping block. A new Dutch study shows that kids are spending a lot less time making art as they spend more of their lives on digital devices.

And that hurts, because the kind of critical thinking developed in arts education (creative, abstract, problem-solving) is important for all kinds of learning.

The value of arts education

Something as simple and low-cost as drawing instruction not only improves kids' hand-eye coordination, but is a "... cognitive tool developed to facilitate information processing," according to researcher Barbara Tversky. But no matter how many studies are published about the links between visual arts and writing or music and math, the cutting continues. Arts programs already have been severely reduced in many schools across the nation, and further cuts are expected as the current administration has moved to eliminate the federal arts programs that distribute funds to states and local communities.

Which communities will be hurt the most? As Illinois teacher Kiera Quintero points out on Huffington Post, "Students in rural and small school districts receive the least amount of instruction in arts education. This is true regardless of socio-economic status of the students enrolled in those schools."

Casting arts programs aside is especially nonsensical when it's understood how learning to draw or play an instrument is integral to children's brain development, and is directly linked to both long-term health and educational success. Kids who got solid arts education in elementary schools attend college at higher rates, according to research from the National Endowment for the Arts. The very things we want to foster in our youth are supported by early and regular exposure to arts programs, proving that these opportunities are important for all students, not just those who may go on to have careers in the arts.

And there are other benefits, too: "[W]hen there’s a strong arts presence in a school there tends to be a more positive school climate and a bigger sense of community,” Providence CityArts executive director Nancy Safian told the Huffington Post.

Real-life applications

For those who still suggest that art isn't useful in "real life," the opposite appears to be true. Drawing, for instance, is used in plenty of jobs, from medicine — where observation is incredibly important to teach diagnostics — to other sciences like botany, geology and anthropology. As a reporter, I often find myself making small drawings to illustrate concepts or to remember particular details.

Some of the other skills I learned as a kid — sculpture-building, including ceramics and papier-mâché, or learning how to read music and play the recorder — informed my education in ways both obvious and in some I'll never know. Those kids who don't get access to the public-school classes that were the norm for me may never even know what they're missing.