The Arts have existed since folks drew on cave walls and I suspect that there was some humming and harmony back in the day before song writing was a thing. Communal dancing around fires at night was an aboriginal celebration in humanity’s history. Artistic expression by individuals and groups seems to be embedded in our DNA. And one of the things that saved me when I first came to America as a kid, was this country’s passion for Arts and Culture.
Yes, there was music in Bermuda where I grew up. Scottish bagpipes were everywhere. Even better, there was dancing. Gombey dancers combining the culture of Africa and West Indies danced in the streets on holidays. American square dancing merged with English Country Dance every Tuesday night. I was young but adamant, and my brother paid a friend sixpence to dance with me. Mom took me to ballet lessons and my first onstage performance was as a pink tulip in the British nursery rhyme: “Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow…”
I’d been offered a large role as a rabbit, but informed my mother that I would not appear in public swaddled in a brown towel with a huge cotton ball on my butt. I understood the impact of visuals even at age six. Mom told me she didn’t know how to make a tulip costume and there was no costume shop on the island. I informed her that several of my friends’ mothers could show she her how it was done. And so I became a pink tulip. I’m sure she was thrilled to discover that I would have the lead the following year dancing in the Victorian era “Tom the WaterBaby”. Not!
She didn’t have to worry because we soon moved to New York. That’s when I discovered that the world beyond Bermuda did not resonate to Victorian English stories. There were no Gombeys in the streets and Scotsmen in kilts playing the bagpipes were a rarity. And American kids resonated more to TV ads for chocolate and jello than to ancient nursery rhymes. In retrospect, I’d received a global education in elementary school, but at the time, I was devastated and dreamed of being turned into a mermaid and swimming back to the island.
My mother used the Arts to calm me down. And while they did not consciously shape my brain for a global mindset, that was indeed the result. The first stop was Madison Square Garden to see The Rockettes. Even before the dancers performed, I was fascinated by the American concept of an auditorium of such inconceivable size. The architecture of this iconic setting was imprinted on my neural net forever. But it was the dancers, a mob of gorgeous women dancing in patterns like a bunch of military goddesses, that had me transfixed. My mermaid dream began to fade into the background.
Seeing what might transform me into an American girl, my parents arranged for me to take violin lessons through the public elementary school. Renting a violin for a year was only $5, the lessons were free and the kids’ orchestra was a regular after-school practice. Soon, I was not only taken to see performances of the New York City Ballet, but orchestras at the new Lincoln Center. The study of and exposure to Arts and Culture expanded as we took in my Dad’s favorites: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and off-Broadway plays. I was required to choose books from the local library every weekend and Dad would quiz me on each of them to make sure I did the actual reading.
I never viewed any of this as educational. It was entertainment, like a tourist enjoying foreign lands. Adventuresome habits were formed early and classes throughout high school reinforced those habits. Inspired, I happily explored worlds that many don’t associate with Arts & Culture: science, math, and languages.
When I see arts education continually taking a back seat in public schools, I cringe. I know funding is a major issue, but making the argument for a choice between teaching arts or math is counterproductive. It’s no accident that Albert Einstein played the violin. His genius came as a confluence of music and science. Yet, for decades, the proportion of students receiving arts education has shrunk drastically. A study by the Brookings Institute showed that this is particularly true for students from historically underserved communities.
This study which is entitled, “New evidence of the benefits of arts education” was research from collaborations among school district administrators, cultural organizations and institutions, philanthropists, and government officials. Collective efforts like the ones in this study are becoming common partnerships for arts education. The analysis of elementary schools involved found that the project significantly affected students’ school engagement and college aspirations. The students were more likely to see school work as enjoyable with programs, classes, and activities that keep them interested.
Not only ware students inspired to explore and learn new subjects, but they better navigate the problematic interpersonal conflicts that have become the new normal. These students can be our innovative leaders, the Einsteins that shape our future. The Arts should be a vital and well-funded element of education.
Not surprisingly, I have made a personal investment in the mission of arts education. When I was the executive director of the Chattanooga Jewish Federation, I created a Black-Jewish music and dance performance and partnered with the local school district of Hamilton County, Tennessee. Having the kids perform and busing in students from around the county was a professional endeavor but also highly personal. How could I not dedicate myself to giving the opportunity to open a window into another culture?And how can we all not support Arts education in our schools?