Why Should We Care About the Arts? (or Let’s Create “Both/And” Schools)

I have been thinking about education–both in early childhood and beyond, both in school and out of school–for most of my career. Most recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are, and are not, teaching in early childhood school settings and beyond.

It seems that we live in what I call an “either/or” world of education. Phonics or whole language? STEM or STEAM? Project-based or scripted curriculum? We sway back and forth from year to year on what we are focused on and what we believe is important. At the moment the arts (and sometimes the humanities) often seem to be getting lost in the shuffle. They aren’t part of the common core of what we have decided children need to learn in school. They are often viewed as things that children should pursue out of school, in private lessons, or on their own time. But what if we stopped the “either /or” conversations and started to talk more about how we can create “both/and” schools for children of all ages and all socioeconomic levels?

I spent the morning at the White House today talking about the importance of the arts and listening to youth tell their stories–stories of how writing gave them someone to talk to when nobody seemed to care, how poetry kept them from a life of incarcerations, how dance awakened a passion that they didn’t know they had. Don’t get me wrong, I love STEM—I used to be the COO of a large science museum– and I absolutely believe in the importance of providing a strong STEM curriculum to all children, in all schools. But I don’t think it should come at the expense of the arts. While it is important to have children memorize the times tables, it may be just as important to give them the opportunity to memorize lines for a play. While it is important to learn the composition of the solar system, it is just as important to learn the composition of a great piece of art. While it is vital to learn to decode the letters and words on a piece of paper, it may be just as important to learn to look carefully at a piece of art, a sculpture, or an artifact from history and decode its’ story.

Education should create a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime. For some, STEM evokes that passion. But for others there is a human passion awakened only though the arts, a passion that we often forget about in education. And many of us love, and need, both in our lives. I write to work through things that I am struggling with, but I also love the beauty and concreteness of doing math. I am fascinated by the stories of science, but I want to be exposed to the stories of the great artists as well. Good writing touches me in a way that is different from the way solving a tough math problem does. I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David for the first time because the absolute beauty of it moved me in a way that is different from the way the beauty of the solar system moves me. Other people have the exact opposite reactions to these very same things and that is exactly my point—we need education systems that support and nurture both/and. These kinds of schools will have a much higher possibility of engaging all children, not just some.

Perhaps the arts are often ignored because they are not seen to be something that teaches “content” that will make you successful in life. But the arts teach you communication when you try to write your thoughts so someone else can connect to them. They teach you perspective taking when you create a painting to look like reality or when you imagine what the artist was thinking. They teach you to take on a challenge as you write and rewrite, create and recreate, or practice a dance until you get it right. They teach you focus and self-control as you work to complete something you started and care deeply about finishing. Perhaps most importantly, they can be the thing that best encourages self-directed and engaged learning for those children who are not engaged by the more traditional “school subjects”. Better yet, what if the arts can be used to engage children in these more traditional subjects?

At SEEC last year our four-year-olds learned about light, invisibility and the electromagnetic spectrum while exploring the adventures of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Another class explored concepts of gravity and its effects on your muscles at the Hirshhorn museum using a piece by artist Ernesto Neto titled, The Dangerous Logic of Wooing and old panty hose full of rice.


A class of our three-year-olds talked about inventing while studying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the artists they were named after. When they studied the turtle “Leo”, they studied the artist Leonardo da Vinci and visited the National Air and Space Museum to see da Vinci’s Flying Man, followed by the students coming up with their own inventions using blocks, magnet tiles and other materials from their classroom. A class of two-year-olds began and ended a six week study of bugs by visiting Louise Bourgeois’  Maman spider sculpture at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, as well as by examining real collections of various bugs from the National Museum of Natural History’s collection.

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Our weekend workshops for preschool children and their families studied the movement of the sun by looking at the sun and the sky on their walk to the National Gallery where they then looked carefully at Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade and Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade, Sunlight to see the difference in the sun and the light on the landscape.

We clearly take a “both/and” approach here at SEEC and we believe our children are better for it. I hope that our conversations around education in this country can move in this direction so we can engage more children, more often and in more ways. After all, isn’t that the point?