The Case for Arts and the Humanities
in Youth Development
Organized youth activities can deter risky behavior in adolescents,
according to a recent national study. Students who participate in
band, orchestra, chorus or a school play, for example, are
significantly less likely than nonparticipants to drop out of school,
be arrested, use drugs or engage in binge drinking. Unfortunately,
this same study also notes that today's most vulnerable youth spend
less time in activities like these and are therefore deprived of their
Quality youth programs, whether organized around the arts and the
humanities, sports, science or outdoor exploration, are a crucial
source of supportive relationships and vital experiences. Arts and
humanities programs are particularly potent in promoting youth
development. We see this most clearly in educational settings
when the arts and the humanities are fully integrated into the
Several integrated educational models currently exist in the United
States. The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District of
Columbia provides its high school students, most of whom come
from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the chance to attend a
school where academics and the arts share the school day equally.
In Kansas City, 7 public school districts, 11 arts organizations and
35 donors have banded together across state lines to form Arts
Partners, an initiative to integrate community arts resources into
the school curriculum. Schools benefiting from this approach have
seen the transforming effect of the arts and the humanities on the
quality of education and on student achievement.
While humanities disciplines such as history, literature and language
have long been accepted as part of the standard school curriculum, the
enlightened educator who understands the value of the arts has had
insufficient educational theory and research upon which to base his or
her insight. In the last several years, this gap has begun to close.
Studies are exploring the role of arts education in the development
of higher order thinking skills, problem-solving ability and
increased motivation to learn. Other studies are finding
correlations between arts education and improvements in academic
performance and standardized test scores, increases in student
attendance and decreases in school drop-out rates. The following
points elaborate on the important ways culture counts in the
development of children and youth.
The arts and the humanities draw upon a range of intelligences and
learning styles. Experts believe that people do not possess a single
general intelligence, but several different kinds: linguistic,
musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic,
interpersonal and intrapersonal.2 Schools by and large focus on
linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. In so doing,
America's educational institutions may consign many children to under-
achievement and failure. As eminent psychologist Howard Gardner
notes, "[S]tudents with strengths in the spatial, musical, or personal
spheres may find school far more demanding than students who happen to
possess the "text-friendly" blend of linguistic and logical
The arts and the humanities provide children with different ways to
process cognitive information and express their own knowledge.
Using processes different from traditional approaches, the arts and
humanities provide children with unique methods for developing
skills and organizing knowledge. Each arts and humanities
discipline has its own distinct symbol system, whether it is
nonverbal, as with music or dance, or uses language in a particular
way, as with creative writing or oral history. Exposure to these
alternate systems of symbols engages the mind, requiring analysis,
synthesis, evaluation and application.
The arts have the potential to enhance academic performance. The
arts give youngsters a richer reservoir of information upon which
to draw in pursuing other subjects, such as reading, writing,
mathematics and history. "Drawing helps writing. Song and poetry
make facts memorable. Drama makes history more vivid and real.
Creative movement makes processes understandable."
By honing nonverbal skills such as perception, imagination and
creativity, the arts also develop vocabulary, metaphorical language,
observation and critical thinking skills. The elements of sound,
movement, space, line, shape and color are all concepts related to
other subject areas such as math and science. The concepts taught
in the arts permeate other scholastic disciplines, and a child's
comprehension of an artistic concept can extend across the
academic curriculum.
Furthermore, the teaching methods used in many arts and
humanities programs provide alternative approaches to learning.
For example, some children can process and retain information
more effectively when they learn by doing, engage in apprentice-
like relationships and use technology such as in computer graphics
and videography.
The arts and the humanities spur and deepen the development of
creativity. By their very nature, the arts and the humanities place a
premium on discovery and innovation, originality and imagination. As
such, they can be powerful vehicles for stimulating creativity in
young people, a valuable trait throughout their lives.
Businesses today increasingly look for workers who can think and
create. Clifford V. Smith, Jr., president of the GE Fund, is typical
when he says, "Developing business leaders starts in school. Not in
assembly-line schooling, but rather through the dynamic processes
that the arts-in-education experience provides."
The arts and the humanities provide critical tools for children and
youth as they move through various developmental stages.
Preschool children, before they are fluent in language, are
powerfully affected by music, visual arts and dance. Preschoolers
can paint, color, mold clay, sing songs, and dance in order to
convey feelings and ideas. These activities encourage young
children to express themselves and learn through the use of
nonverbal symbols.
Teenagers struggle with issues of identity, independence,
competency and social role. The arts help to mediate this
confusion. Creative art activity allows the adolescent to gain
mastery over internal and external landscapes by discovering
mechanisms for structure and containment that arise from within,
rather than being imposed from outside. The artistic experience
entails repetition of actions, thoughts or emotions, over which the
adolescent gains increased tolerance or mastery. While providing a
means to express pain and unfulfilled longings during a distinct
maturational phase, the arts simultaneously engage the competent,
hopeful and healthy aspects of the adolescents' being.
Similarly, the humanities encourage youth to read, write and
express themselves in a disciplined way.
Changes in body image may be expressed through movement and
dance. Drama offers the opportunity to explore identity by
integrating childhood roles and experimenting with future
possibilities. Music expresses emotional dissonance and volatility.
The visual arts provide a vehicle for translating inner experiences
to outward visual images. Writing and oral history projects bring a
greater understanding of one's family and neighborhood.
The arts and the humanities teach the value of discipline and
teamwork and the tangible rewards each can bring. When
children's efforts culminate in a performance or exhibition, they
have a chance to experience meaningful public affirmation, which
provides them with some degree of celebrity. For those few
minutes, children are in their own eyes every bit as important as
anybody-any TV, sports, music, movie or video idol.
This can be an experience of particular potency for youngsters
whose lives are primarily characterized by anonymity and failure.
The arts and the humanities provide youth with a different perspective
on their own lives, a chance to imagine a different outcome and to
develop a critical distance from everyday life. For one adult poet, a
well-known children's book allowed her to envision a different world
from the abusive one in which she lived as a child. At a conference
for adults learning to read, she recalled this experience, held up
Smokey and the Cowhorse and said, "This is the book that saved my
life." Victor Swenson, executive director of the Vermont Council on
the Humanities, elaborates: "It [the book] represented a world outside
of her own circumstances; a world of honor and honesty, love and
loyalty and bad luck and good luck. It gave her something outside of
her own experience. And she could see that there was a way out."
Developing cultural literacy in children and youth gives them a
sense of perspective as they participate in traditions of expression
from which they learn and to which they can contribute. As
humanist John William Ward wrote in 1985, "[H]umanistic
learning is centered on the individual who has important questions
about self and society. To learn some of the answers to those
questions means the fullest and richest and most imaginative
development of every single self."
A respected gang-interventionist writes, "One of the most natural
and effective vehicles for gang members is the road of the arts,
especially theater. New values only emerge through new
experiences, and the arts provide a unique laboratory where truth
and possibility can be explored safely. Validating emotional safety
is everything."
Because dance, music, photography and other visual arts transcend
language, they can bridge barriers among cultural, racial and ethnic
groups. The arts also can promote a deeper understanding of
similarities and differences among religions, races and cultural
traditions. For some children, the exploration of their unique
cultural histories can be critical to their sense of themselves and to
others' images of them. This knowledge can help bind them more fully
to the larger society of which they are a part.
The arts and the humanities are a critical part of a complete
education. The true worth of cultural knowledge transcends any of
its specific applications.
Source: Coming Up Taller, a report about youth arts programs
by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities
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