Awuor Onguru says that if it were not for her continued exposure to arts education as a child, she never would have gotten into Yale University.
Growing up in a lower-middle-class family in Nairobi, Kenya, Ms. Onguru, now a 20-year-old junior majoring in English and French, started taking music lessons at the age of four. By 12, she was playing violin in the string quartet at her primary school, where every student was required to play an instrument. As a high school student on scholarship at the International School of Kenya, she was not only being taught Bach concertos, she also became part of Nairobi’s music scene, playing first violin in a number of local orchestras.
During her high school summer breaks, Ms. Onguru — who also has a strong interest in creative writing and poetry — went to the United States, attending the Interlochen Center for the Arts’ creative writing camp, in Michigan, and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Ms. Onguru, who recently returned to campus after helping organize Yale Glee Club’s spring tour in Kenya, hopes to become a journalist after graduation. She has already made progress toward that goal, serving as the opinion editor for the Yale Daily News, and getting her work published in Teen Vogue and the literary journal Menacing Hedge.
“Whether you’re in sports, whether you end up in STEM, whether you end up in government, seeing my peers — who had different interests in arts — not everyone wanted to be an artist,” she said in a video interview. “But they found places to express themselves, found places to be creative, found places to say things that they didn’t know how else to say them.”
Ms. Onguru’s path shows what a pivotal role arts education can play in a young person’s development. Yet, while the arts and culture space accounts for a significant amount of gross domestic product across the globe — in the United Kingdom in 2021, the arts contributed £109 billion to the economy, while in the U.S., it brought in over $1 trillion that year — arts education budgets in schools continue to get slashed. (In 2021, for instance, the spending on arts education in the U.K. came to an average of just £9.40 per pupil for the year.)
While experts have long espoused the idea that exposure to the arts plays a critical role in primary and secondary schooling, education systems globally have continually failed to hold it in high regard. As Eric Booth, a U.S.-based arts educator and a co-author of “Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music,” said: “There are a whole lot of countries in the world that don’t have the arts in the school, it just isn’t a thing, and it never has been.”
That has led to the arts education trajectory heading in a “dark downward spiral,” said Jelena Trkulja, senior adviser for academic and cultural affairs at Qatar Museums, who moderated a panel entitled “When Arts Education is a Luxury: New Ecosystems” at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Florence, Italy, organized by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, with panels moderated by New York Times journalists.
Part of why that is happening, she said, is that societies still don’t have a sufficient and nuanced understanding of the benefits arts education can bring, in terms of young people’s development. “Arts education is still perceived as an add-on, rather than an essential field creating essential 21st-century skills that are defined as the four C’s of collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking,” Dr. Trkulja said in a video interview, “and those skills are being developed in arts education.”
Dennie Palmer Wolf, principal researcher at the U.S.-based arts research consultancy WolfBrown, agreed. “We have to learn to make a much broader argument about arts education,” she said. “It isn’t only playing the cello.”
It is largely through the arts that we as humans understand our own history, from a cave painting in Indonesia thought to be 45,000 years old to “The Tale of Genji,” a book that’s often called the world’s first novel, written by an 11th-century Japanese woman, Murasaki Shikibu; from the art of Michelangelo and Picasso to the music of Mozart and Miriam Makeba and Taylor Swift.
“The arts are one of the fundamental ways that we try to make sense of the world,” said Brian Kisida, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s Truman School of Public Affairs and a co-director of the National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored Arts, Humanities & Civic Engagement Lab. “People use the arts to offer a critical perspective of their exploration of the human condition, and that’s what the root of education is in some ways.”
And yet, the arts don’t lend themselves well to hard data, something educators and policymakers need to justify classes in those disciplines in their budgets. “Arts is this visceral thing, this thing inside you, the collective moment of a crescendo,” said Heddy Lahmann, an assistant professor of international education at New York University, who is conducting a global study examining arts education in public schools for the Community Arts Network. “But it’s really hard to qualify what that is.”
Dr. Lahmann’s early research into the decrease in spending by public schools in arts education points to everything from the lack of trained teachers in the arts — partly because those educators are worried about their own job security — to the challenges of teaching arts remotely in the early days of the Covid pandemic. And, of course, standardized tests like the Program for International Student Assessment, which covers reading, math and science, where countries compete on outcomes. “There’s a race to get those indicators,” Dr. Lahmann said, “and arts don’t readily fit into that.” In part, that is because standardized tests don’t cover arts education. “It’s that unattractive truth that what gets measured gets attended to,” said Mr. Booth, the arts educator who co-authored “Playing for Their Lives.”
While studies over the years have underscored the ways that arts education can lead to better student achievement — in the way that musical skills support literacy, say, and arts activities lead to improved vocabulary, what have traditionally been lacking are large-scale randomized control studies. But a recent research project done in 42 elementary and middle schools in Houston, which was co-directed by Dr. Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen, a professor who teaches education policy at Texas A&M, is the first of its kind to do just that. Their research found that students who had increased arts education experiences saw improvements in writing achievement, emotional and cognitive empathy, school engagement and higher education aspirations, while they had a lower incidence of disciplinary infractions.
As young people are now, more than ever, inundated with images on social media and businesses are increasingly using A.I., it has become even more relevant for students these days to learn how to think more critically and creatively. “Because what is required of us in this coming century is an imaginative capacity that goes far beyond what we have deliberately cultivated in the schooling environment over the last 25 years,” said Mariko Silver, the chief executive of the Henry Luce Foundation, “and that requires truly deep arts education for everyone.”
Photos: 1) Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times; 2) Credit…Avion Pearce for The New York Times