The marginalization of the arts in educational settings and its disconnect from “true” learning is a tired (and tiring) narrative.
Executive Director, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
I want my daughter to be a rock star when she grows up. A full blown, unapologetic, living-on-the-edge, guitar-god rock star. I want her to embrace the rebel spirit, command center stage, and lead an out loud and storied life that is driven by her passion for music. I want her to possess a radical artistic curiosity and live fully into her creative self.
As the director of Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW)—an organization that builds community through the arts and offers a context for creative thought and artistry that functions as a mechanism for genuine and profound human connection—I’ve had a front row seat for 15 years to the transformative power the arts can unleash in children.
It is this power that compels my daughter to dedicate hours at a time to practicing her guitar. She learns anything and everything from Etta James to Eddie Van Halen, creates innovative soundtracks for school projects, jams with her friends, and hangs out at Guitar Center trying out different instruments and experimenting with sound. It is the same power that has compelled thousands of students from all backgrounds to pursue their creative dreams at CHAW over the last 50 years.
Too often, though, the arts are seen as peripheral, most often in service of enriching rather than driving one’s learning in a formal educational setting. The arts aren’t given the opportunity to play a transformative role in a young person’s learning and growth unless a level of “genius” is observed: a rare form of greatness reserved for a select few. This narrow valuing of the arts prevents the young people who feel most liberated in artistic spaces from cultivating a unique interest that might just be the X-factor in shaping their life path—regardless of where it leads.
Changing this narrative begins with challenging the very notion of genius and its ties to ability, breaking down the barriers that place the arts outside of “true” learning, and developing a new appreciation for what the arts are.
The Artistic “Genius” is not an Aberration
It’s common to hear the word “potential” discussed in measures of “genius” no matter the skills or abilities being discussed. However, artistic ability (musical or otherwise) is traditionally seen as a skill one is born with, rather than one that can be nurtured. This unchallenged belief creates a mystique around art that overlooks an individual’s potential and ignores their passion. For children with limited resources and access to the arts, tapping into their potential becomes exponentially more difficult.
Getting any kid to see, appreciate, and act on their potential and passion is an educational nirvana that great teachers live for. It’s what cultivates life-long learners. CHAW has always been a place with many pathways for developing artistic skill, appreciating creativity, and building community. We meet people where they are. Here, anyone can find a place for themselves. Everyone is free to explore their potential and follow their passion—no prerequisite “genius” is required.
My daughter (the rock star) plays for her own enjoyment and on her own terms, fueled by her own passion (and YouTube). In fact, she has actively resisted formal guitar instruction from day one because for her, it takes the fun and improvisation out of playing. For her, there is a disconnect between formal education and creativity, and she is unwilling to compromise her musical experience, joy, or autonomy in service of the status quo.
“Genius” never factors into the equation. Instead, she is free to follow the paths of inquiry that interest her. Music provides the framework, and her imagination does the rest. The lasting impact of this learning experience cannot be underestimated.
Learning Through Art is “True” Learning
The marginalization of the arts in educational settings and its disconnect from “true” learning is a tired (and tiring) narrative. Countless studies demonstrate that the differences in educational outcomes between students with and without a solid arts foundation are profound. Furthermore, students who would benefit the most from an arts education are least likely to receive one. It’s astonishing that this indisputable evidence relating to the improvements in student performance that we say we want is largely ignored in academic settings.
In a January 2020 interview for NPR, Girija Kaimal, a professor at Drexel University and a researcher in art therapy asserted, “Anything that engages your creative mind—the ability to make connections between unrelated things and imagine new ways to communicate—is good for you.” Her research demonstrates how the arts help you imagine a more hopeful future, activate the reward center of your brain, lower stress, and let you focus more deeply.
At CHAW, we have seen this connectivity happen time and time again. To make art, you have to take risks. It’s a vulnerable space where one simultaneously fears rejection and reaps rewards. It’s a space of openness that enables you to tell your story honestly and internalize the stories of others.
This space engenders empathy, which effects change. It is a space where transformation happens and confidence is built. At CHAW, we like to say that “the arts are a way of life for a lifetime.” If we are driven to cultivate lifelong learners, we must embrace the arts as a meaningful catalyst in the lives of young people.
Engaging with Arts for Art’s Sake
For all the anecdotal evidence that exists and all the research that has been done on the benefits of arts in education, arts and education are oddly divorced from each other. Art is education—an education that is contextualized and humanized. It’s not an afterthought like when someone remembered to add an “A” to STEM. Nor is it just a “nice” way to add color to one’s learning. It’s essential.
Not too long ago I overheard my daughter practicing Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come.” You can’t know Cooke’s music without knowing his story. Murdered at the age of 33, Cooke was an American singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur who started his career as a soul singer in the 1950’s, crossed over into pop music, and eventually distinguished himself as a Black businessman who broke ground by establishing his own recording, publishing, and management firms.
Cooke is an icon in both music and civil rights. Bringing his words and melodies to life brings him to life—viscerally connecting my daughter to this pivotal figure at a pivotal time in American history. The layers to his story and the music that accompanies it are rich in meaning, perspective, and consequence, and they have a lasting impact. She wasn’t just learning about him, she was experiencing the world through him. This rich learning experience begs the question, what would happen if all history taught in schools was music history?
Taking the question of “nice” vs. “need” out of the equation invites thinking about the arts for what they are, rather than how they benefit us. It’s a slight but significant shift in thinking that ascribes intrinsic value to the arts. It invites us to personally engage with the arts, rather than have the arts prescribed to us.
Passion, empathy, and confidence pave the way to self-actualization, and it is no accident that they manifest in the context of an “arts for art’s sake” environment. Imagine what would happen if all children had access to that pathway. It might just reveal the rock star in all of us.