By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman
NEEPAWA, Man. — Last week, Neepawa area residents had the chance to watch this year’s major production, put on by the students at Neepawa Area Collegiate Institute. It was a fantastic show and a great opportunity to see all of the talent in our school, talent which I’m sure exists in schools across the region. Watching the students on stage made me think about what a valuable experience this was for them as they prepare to graduate into adulthood.
For school divisions or governments looking to save money, fine arts programs, including drama, music, choir, visual arts and dance, are usually one of the first items on the chopping blocks. That’s an incredibly short-sighted path.
The public, though, is generally supportive of these cuts and many taxpayers feel that education should only be about core academic subjects — English, math, science. But should it? In high school, my course selection was focused entirely on academics: AP math, AP chemistry, AP physics and the other mandatory classes in English and social studies. I did no arts electives; no drama, no band, no visual arts. Through a school change, I ended up learning the same calculus three times: once in Grade 11, again in Grade 12 and finally, again in university.
For all the advanced math and science I took in high school, I use none of those skills today. But what I do frequently call upon is what I learned in my one non-hard-core-academic elective: debating. Not so much the actual act of debating, although I use some of those skills in my writing, what I use are the public speaking skills I learned in that class. I don’t mind speaking in front of a crowd and that’s a skill I am finding to be increasingly rare among those of my generation.
This is where the arts come in.
In a world that is heavily reliant upon technology, teaching students advanced math and science is important to prepare them for further study in the STEM fields. But if we’re talking about preparing students to become young adults and valuable, contributing members of society, the ability to present yourself, speak with confidence and work as part of a team are probably more important skills for many graduates.
We have made physical education mandatory until graduation, and while health and wellness are important life skills, so too are the arts. There’s a pretty strong consensus about the benefits of education in the fine arts. Beyond helping people see beauty in the everyday, arts education can improve students’ reading, writing and math skills; it can improve graduation rates; it can improve students’ visual analysis skills, their ability to learn from mistakes, be creative and improve critical judgment skills; it can connect students to the larger world and improve community cohesion and it can improve teacher happiness.
Even the Rand Corporation, the global policy think tank originally formed to provide analysis and research to the United States Armed Forces, authored a 2005 report about the benefits of fine arts when it comes to connecting people and opening them up to new ways of thinking.
Fine arts education should be mandatory for one reason, most students need a bit of a push. Putting yourself up on stage or your work up on the wall and opening yourself to criticism is hard, but an important life skill. Teenagers can be awkward and insecure, but when everyone has to push beyond their comfort zone, to continue to get up in front of their peers and community members, it becomes less of a big deal, everyone is in the same boat. The time to make mistakes is in Grade 11 or Grade 12, not when you’re in an interview for your dream job or pitching a business idea and your future depends on it.
Without a doubt, budgets are constrained and everyone is concerned about their tax burden. But if we want to produce young people who can step into jobs and organizations and help grow our communities, we want well-rounded students and the fine arts are a vital part of that.