The importance of the arts in meaningful education

8 August 2012
In this opinion piece Arnold Aprill, Fulbright Senior Specialist and Sydney Ideas speaker, argues that in an information age, the arts must be central to the curriculum.

The arts have long been perceived as a desirable add-on to teaching and learning, but not central to curriculum or schooling. All too often arts education is cut during economic hard times. What has led to this "dis-integration" of the arts from schools?

When I was a child in Chicago in the 1950s every classroom had a piano, and every teacher knew how to play it. Including the arts in teaching and learning was assumed and even taken for granted; but budget cuts, a "back-to-basics" movement, and a mania for reducing all education to maths and reading test scores has eviscerated arts education in public schools across Australia, and all over the United States.

Why should we care? There are the usual reasons: arts education is necessary for educating the whole child as part of a well-rounded education. The arts form the enduring legacies of all civilisations. The arts provide insight into the cultures of other periods and geographies. Arts education introduces talented students to career options. The arts bring beauty and joy.

Primary school students holding up their artwork in class.

Arnold Aprill asks what has led to the 'dis-integration' of the arts from schools.


While all these are true, in an information age dependent on innovation, creativity and a constantly changing body of knowledge, there is much more at stake. We live in a world of radical shifts in populations, identities, and cultures, of massive amounts of ever evolving, hyperlinked information, and of distributed means of cultural production. Learners are not only consumers of culture they are producers of culture. The arts are one of the few places where a wide range of learners can make meaningful choices about their own learning. The arts are essential arenas for young people to develop their capacities to manage change, to collaborate with others, and to participate in and make contributions to their communities. We live in an image-based world where the ability to shoot and edit video is as powerful a force in global communication as the ability to write and edit text.

Young people are not, as is commonly assumed, disengaged from the arts. They are deeply involved in the arts - just not in our educational institutions. It is our schools that have become disengaged - and they will need to catch up with our students if we don't want to see our children's hunger for learning and expression continue flowing out of our schools like water through a sieve.

And while young people may be endlessly resilient and resourceful, there are inequities in who gets access to the arts. This is simply unjust. This is aesthetic apartheid. And our access needs to be about more than young people becoming audiences to the arts. We need to move from narrow concepts of arts access to broader concepts of democratic participation in the arts - in which our students not only become informed audiences, but also, as Harvard scholar Howard Gardner has suggested, critics, composers, and performers.

The arts, like reading and writing, are not only about content knowledge or even skill development. The arts are not simply another fish in the curricular sea. They are the water we swim in. We would never consider limiting the teaching of reading and writing to future Booker Prize awardees, but we often act as if arts education is only for the gifted and the privileged. But the arts are for everyone, not just those of us who think of ourselves as creative. They expand everyone's options for thought and perception. They are modes of expression that cross all disciplines, and are the birthright of all learners.

In Chicago an organisation called the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE) has, for over two decades, been studying what happens when the arts are placed at the centre of public education. Classroom teachers, arts teachers and visiting artists have collaborated in over 130 Chicago Public Schools to connect arts learning to learning across the entire public school curriculum. Sculptors work with geography teachers to investigate concepts of mapping. Dancers work with science teachers to represent natural phenomenon. Actors work with social studies teachers to explore historical conflicts. Video artists work with students to interpret literature through animation. CAPE's website documents research about and examples of effective arts-integrated classroom practice. Teachers are re-invigorated, students are re-engaged, arts teachers and visiting artists form collaborative relationships with classroom teachers, and parents and community members become involved in the life of their neighbourhood schools.

All too often we hear teachers and parents, policymakers and administrators bemoaning the challenge of chronic educational problems: "Our students are too apathetic, our teachers are uninspired, our communities are disengaged." This makes those of us involved in sustained arts education partnerships in Australia and the US feel like pulling our hair out. Pioneering arts education partnerships among a wide range of artists, schools, and communities in both countries have already developed an evolved set of strategies for actively addressing these "unsolvable" problems. I have been privileged to become part of emerging exchanges between promising practices in both countries. A richer discourse needs to be established between those who bemoan the state of public education and those who have placed the arts at the centre.


Arnold Aprill is the Founder and Lead Consultant for the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE). He is working as a Fulbright Senior Specialist with the University of Sydney, the University of Tasmania, and the University of Melbourne.

Putting the Arts at the Centre of Curriculum and Schooling, a Sydney Ideas lecture, co-presented with the Faculty of Education and Social Work.