The first large-scale Learning Expedition we mounted in our young charter school for ecology and the arts in 2005 was, “In the Shadow of the Hermit,” an investigation into the life of a fascinating local Las Vegas, New Mexico historical figure. The picture above is from Río Gallinas School’s culminating event, which incorporated theater, dance, puppetry, music, and visual art into an incredible expression of the depth of their learning in all subjects.
I was working this week with the Río Gallinas staff on plans for next year’s learning expeditions when one of the senior staff members posed me a question: If you had to sum up arts integration on a bumper sticker, how would you do it?
My first impulse was to think, “It’s too complex to go on a bumper sticker,” but I promised to mull it over. Then, later that morning we were exploring the characteristics of arts integration. JT, the teacher who posed the question, said, “I think you just answered my question.”
As we tried to remember the exact language I had used that crystallized arts integration for JT (after years of exposure and training, by the way), JT was able to identify where his epiphany came from. It was the realization that the art form is not a helper, but THE crucial tool through which the student constructs understanding and makes meaning.
This brought home to me how much the marginalization of the arts in schools has broken down their value in a vicious downward spiral. If even the most seasoned, skilled, and sympathetic classroom teacher in the building didn’t get the central place of the art form in the learning process we call arts integration, I almost despair of getting the idea across to a generation of teachers conditioned to find the arts jettisoned in the slightest of belt-tightening efforts.
Art is essential to human understanding.
Think about it: art is essential to humanity. Without a vessel to pour our understanding into, we might become Jeopardy champs, but our knowledge doesn’t come together into a consistent, coherent, meaningful world view. Without art, we lead bland, unquestioning, subsistence lives of spiritual poverty. Without art, we will never become citizens of a sustainable world.
Therefore, every school, everywhere, should immediately put down their calculators and number 2 pencils. They should throw away all drugs they are currently putting into our children to counteract the effects of a deadly-boring and counterproductive factory education. They should invest their capital into studios and theaters and galleries where students can create and share their solutions to real problems. They should make art a daily occurrence, as natural as breathing. We should be like those primal cultures who have no word for art because it is part of everything.
By devaluing art, we devalue all that is human. We throw away the most powerful tool for human understanding, connections, celebration, and problem-solving. We have to stop teaching children NOT to be creative.
Art is the solution to everything that ails not only education, but all the challenges to humanity. Why? Well, maybe the answer is that bumper sticker we were looking for:
Artists always find a way.