Gao ’24: Arts education is crucial for social and emotional learning. Stop cutting his funds.

This summer, the UK government announced a plan to cut its funding for arts programs in higher education by 50%, impacting programs such as art and design, media, music and the performing arts. Former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says the move leaves more funding available for STEM courses, which help train future employees to work in public services that have become in high demand during the pandemic.

This tendency of policy makers to see arts education as an expendable part of the curriculum is not confined to the UK. In the United States, policymakers under the Trump administration have debated eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, despite it accounting for just 0.003% of the federal budget. Particularly due to the economic constraints of the pandemic, total U.S. statutory appropriations for arts education in fiscal year 2021 fell 17.9% from fiscal year 2020. This decline represents a down 38.7% from fiscal 2001, according to a recent report by the National Assembly of State Talent Agencies.

Contrary to the belief of legislators who view arts education as disposable, it is crucial for the personal development of students. Students in rural and low-income areas are disproportionately affected by budget cuts that prioritize tested subjects such as math and science. These students, however, are the ones who can potentially benefit the most from arts education. NASAA research shows that at-risk youth from lower socioeconomic strata demonstrate increased engagement in academic opportunities and civic activities correlating with greater exposure to arts education. By interacting with the arts, students experience something they cannot get elsewhere: the freedom to cultivate their own growth by practicing self-awareness, empathy, and creativity.

Arts education is an invaluable chance to experience total freedom without overly punitive grading. The art lends itself to more generous grading, perhaps because teachers recognize that each piece is rooted in personal experience. On Art Class Curator, a platform that empowers art teachers, many have written that their art grading system focuses more on process and effort than on the end product. For the students, this is a huge relief. Responding to the question of why it is important to study art, one student said: “School in general is so stressful…this (art) is the one lesson I look forward to every week because I know it’s not going to stress me out significantly.”

Because art is so subjective, art classrooms can become particularly non-judgmental spaces on a school campus. Emboldened by this creative license and freed from the pressure to achieve “good results”, students can instead focus solely on their expression. Art removes apprehensions of grades and competition, leaving open a space full of creative possibilities.

Students also practice self-awareness, empathy, and creativity in art. They will likely encounter projects that require rigorous self-investigation and ruminations on personal identity and emotion. To translate lived experiences into artistic expression, students must step out of an often deeply emotional place and re-examine it from a variety of narrative perspectives. They must then harmonize these understandings into a creative vision that can be grasped by viewers. The goal of this practice aligns with that of art therapy, which has been shown to build emotional and behavioral stability by helping participants recognize and accept their emotions.

Not only do students practice self-awareness and empathy in art lessons, but they also cultivate creativity by expressing their ideas with a limited set of tools. Contrary to expectations, the limited art materials in a school art room are perhaps the best catalysts for creativity. Research reveals that resource scarcity forces consumers to innovate new ways to use a product. Similarly, in art, students must solve problems creatively to make the most of the tools at their disposal.

Every skill practiced in art classrooms is a component of social and emotional learning, which not only provides the essential skills to build a successful career, but also the skills needed to become a whole human being. As education increasingly focuses on pre-vocational training for hard skills, arts education has the unique power to ground students by maintaining a stress-free space that allows students to explore their personal identity through reflection and creative interpretations of those reflections. Only with a solid financial investment in arts education across the country can this be realized and protected.

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