The arts vs. the rest: why arts education is necessary

In light of proposed cuts in arts funding around the world, people everywhere have been promoting the importance of the arts. Arts education, in particular, is an issue that has become a veritable battleground for politicians, educators, and celebrities alike. In many ways, the cuts to arts funding seems to be completely logical; should we be training more ballerinas and painters than doctors and engineers? Unfortunately, it’s not as black-and-white as this. There’s been a lot written about the correlation between arts education and overall cognitive thinking, and nearly just as much has been written to disprove that. In this frenzy of scientific discoveries and refutes, I feel that we’re ignoring the main point – why does everything have to be about science?

Let me make one point clear upfront: I’m not just some fanciful arts major whining abstractly about why nobody will listen to me sing (in fact, I am fully aware why nobody wants to hear me sing). I am in fact a science major in one of the best science faculties in North America, and I am fully aware of the importance of scientific study and inquiry in today’s society. Growing up, I was always told that we could either grow up to be scientists or artists. There was no possibility of being good at both – our brains are all wired to either be creative and emotional, or logical and numerical (from a neurological perspective, this is flawed, but I’ll let that slide). Of course, being the rebellious child I was, I attempted to excel in both. I studied and performed music, derived and integrated functions, analyzed poetry, and dropped eggs from three-story buildings with equal enthusiasm. I quickly realized that there is no concrete distinction between “the arts” and “the rest”: studying the Berg violin concerto, for example, required a great deal of mathematical thought and precision, while designing an effective chemistry lab required creativity and imaginative thinking. When I applied for university, I made the decision to go into science, but knowing well that my success in science was due to the discipline, accuracy, problem solving skills, memory, and critical thinking skills that I had gained through my arts education.

I strongly believe that arts education in not only important for training up future scientists and engineers – the arts are valuable in themselves. Today, the arts are viewed as a luxury; an impractical, inferior, and inefficient form of communication, created by and (hopefully) inciting bursts of illogical emotion. It’s true that art is qualitative rather than quantitative, but sensory experiences are as valid a form of cognition as logical reasoning. In fact, the arts and the sciences share the same overarching goal: comprehension. This may sound hopelessly abstract, but just as science tries to categorize and rationalize physical phenomena, paintings, music, dance, and other forms of art are used to understand and deal with experiences. Science is a great tool, but after we have a set of facts, what can we do with them? How do we determine how to use a scientific discovery in the most constructive way possible for society? Morals and ethics are based on philosophy (often relegated to the arts faculty in universities, despite the fact that one of the highest achievements in any field – a PhD – is in fact a doctorate in philosophy), and are often based on emotional responses to past and current experiences. Hard facts in themselves are often useless; it is their value and application that can help us understand anything.

Education is a transfer of knowledge and experience with the ultimate goal of understanding – how can this be possible without the arts? Humans are not human because of their ability to make logical deductions, but to feel and express emotions. Arts education is not simply important; it is necessary, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that the arts stay in schools.

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