Artifacts from early human societies suggest that the arts were always important. If the arts hadn’t been important, people wouldn’t have expended the considerable time and energy it took to decorate clothing and tools, and to make non-functional artistic objects (such as necklaces)—given the primitive tools and materials available to them.

The arts have endured, and so we’ve also learned much about later cultures through their art. Anouilh, Bach, Cézanne, Da Vinci, and the rest of the arts alphabet live on in today’s theaters, concert halls, and museums.

A Dilemma
So why would communities who laud their architecture, museums, musical organizations, and theaters reduce or even eliminate their school arts programs that a quarter of a century ago were staffed by trained professionals? Do folks who enjoy choir music in church think that singing in parts is innate? Do small communities struggling for identity realize that their school arts program is just about the only live culture in the area?

What occurred was the recent emergence of a politically powerful but biologically naïve belief that it’s necessary and possible to create an efficient, inexpensive, one-size-fits-all assessment program that precisely measures all the learned behaviors of an imprecise brain.

Some learned behavior (such as language/math skills and facts) can be precisely measured. The response is either true or false. But most human behavior involves making choices among legitimate alternatives – such as what TV shows to watch, what to order in a restaurant, what charities to support, what candidate to vote for. These decisions generally don’t emerge out of factual true/false, but rather out of personal beliefs about right/wrong, good/bad, fair/unfair, beautiful/ugly, interesting/boring, etc. that are often unrelated to factual information about the issue. The failures we experience in life generally occur because of poor personal, social, and vocational choices and not because of spelling and/or multiplication table deficiencies.

When politicians began to demand that educators create precise assessment programs, the arts were obviously in trouble. As suggested above, the arts are about personal choices that lead to unique creations that demonstrate style and grace, and not about programmed responses that lead to reproducible measurable correctness. Unfortunately, the assessment/standards movement gained momentum because of its appeal to unthinking folks who seek simple solutions to complex problems—and it now pretty much drives the curriculum.

Art programs are expensive and labor-intensive, and so they are also vulnerable on those accounts in a tight economy. Arts educators thus tried to accommodate the assessment movement by developing statements that justify their existence, and by creating standards that could be assessed. But why should the arts have to justify themselves? They’ve been integral to human life a lot longer than algebra and spelling, which evidently weren’t required to justify their curricular existence.

But is it possible to understand algebra without understanding symbolics and metaphor, central constructs of the arts? One could further argue that if it’s important for children to learn the sequence of letters that spell a word, it should be equally important to learn the sequence of tones that create a melody. Why would schools seek to develop only one of the brain mechanisms that evolved to process such sequences? To justify music in school by suggesting that “playing music calms down students in a classroom or school bus” (as one benighted person said to me), or that music somehow mysteriously improves math scores is to seriously miss the point about what the arts and arts education are all about.

Similarly, precise assessment of the arts is a hopeless enterprise, since the arts can’t be narrowly defined, easily measured, and precisely reproduced. You can’t box something that allows the human spirit to soar.

The poet e. e. cummings stated it beautifully:

nothing measurable can be alive,
nothing that isn’t alive can be art
nothing that isn’t art can be true,
and anything that isn’t true
doesn’t amount to a very good goddamn.

Arts performance and products obviously can be and are evaluated. Critics do it all the time. But their criticism is subjective, and two critics may differ considerably on their assessment of the same artistic performance or product. The value of such critical assessment is thus dependent on the experience and credibility of the critic, and not on some external objective true/false measure. I thus believe that the loss of teachers with professional training in the arts may well be the most serious loss in the diminution of arts education programs. It’s foolish to demand credible assessment in the arts and then to eliminate the educators who were trained to do it.

A Ray of Light
The National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Education funded an extensive study that analyzed the considerable arts education research literature in an attempt to resolve issues that relate to the assessment/standards movement and arts education. What emerged, Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development (2002), is an excellent carefully selected compendium of 62 studies that the task force considered best able to help resolve the issue of the role of the arts in contemporary K-12 education.

They examined research studies and position papers in dance, drama, music, visual arts, and also studies that explored multi-arts issues. Many of the studies were meta-analyses of a large number of related studies. Educators interested in arts education and/or assessment and curricular standards should certainly read this thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis and discussion.

In essence, the project discovered that it’s currently difficult if not impossible to identify substantive cognitive changes that occur quickly as a result of exposure to the arts. It takes at least 20 years for our brain to reach maturity, and arts abilities and values (like many other value-laden elements of life) emerge gradually.

Transfer in learning from one cognitive domain to another isn’t a one-way process (such as the belief that the arts must improve reading scores in order to be of value). Rather transfer is a reciprocal process in which all curricular areas in a good school provide support for the mastery of other areas.

The arts aren’t about mastering specific measurable units of information, but rather about integrating information and values—and since integration can occur in a wide variety of ways and take many forms, simple assessment technologies that seek precise measurements are inappropriate for the central elements of a quality arts education program.

The 62 studies identified a number of important specific areas of cognitive maturation that a quality arts education program supports. That’s useful information for educators beset by political pressures, but I’ve always viewed the arts as an exploratory enterprise that allows our brain to reconstruct the ordinary elements of our life and world into something extraordinary—a celebration of the ordinary. For those who purport to be human, what’s more important in life and school than that?