Why we should take the arts seriously

19th December 2003 at 00:00
The place of the expressive arts is well established in the primary school.

Although not ranking in importance with literacy and numeracy, art, music, drama and dance are recognised as having a valuable contribution to make to children's development.

They involve active and enjoyable forms of learning that promote a range of skills and help to build confidence. Many primary school projects successfully combine formal learning in the core subjects with creative work in the arts.

When youngsters move to secondary school, however, the picture is rather different, despite the fact that specialist teachers in the various arts disciplines are available.

The problem does not lie with the teachers. I have recently had the opportunity to speak to staff in drama, and art and design, and know that there is no shortage of exciting ideas and innovative projects. However, an unspoken message is conveyed to pupils that work in the arts may be fun but it is not really what the serious business of schooling is about. The old pecking order of academic subjects still persists.

This is unfortunate, for it is not hard to justify the importance of the arts on grounds ranging from the utilitarian to the transcendental.

Take art and design, for example. Nowadays there are many interesting career opportunities for people with artistic talent - in advertising, publishing, the media, fashion, web design, and so on. Then there is the whole area of the environment - the importance of architecture and the impact of various forms of development (industrial, commercial, agricultural) on landscape, neighbourhood and the quality of life.

There is - or there certainly ought to be - an important aesthetic dimension to planning decisions and increased sensitivity to the use of public space must surely be welcome.

Within the arts, music tends to attract most attention and - at least according to my local authority sources - the most sponsorship. Certainly the quality of many school bands and orchestras testifies to the hard work and commitment of staff and students alike. The appeal of this particular art form has been strengthened by research studies which suggest a connection between exposure to music and intellectual development. In the model proposed by the psychologist Howard Gardner, musical intelligence is a distinctive category.

At school, dance is perhaps the poor relation among the arts, notwithstanding the success of the film Billy Elliot and the appeal of informal dance linked to popular music. Like drama, it involves a level of exposure of the self that can be threatening, given all the adolescent traumas that young people have to contend with.

At the same time, the rewards in terms of self-esteem and sense of achievement can be considerable. I have a colleague who reports with pride on the growing confidence of his teenage son through involvement in a range of dance, drama and musical activities. He has a daughter who is more gifted in conventional academic terms and the contrasting routes to maturity make an interesting study.

These are compelling reasons for taking the arts seriously and it is to be hoped that the review group looking at the 3-18 curriculum will give careful thought to them. But there is another dimension to the kind of learning that the arts encourage, a dimension that has traditionally been under-represented in Scottish education.

The arts enable us to experience and see things in new ways, thus challenging our construction of the world. They convey in visual and concrete form, and through music and performance, thoughts and feelings that cannot be communicated in other ways. Above all, they lift the heart and spirit and take us beyond the everyday and mundane.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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