In writing last week about painter Amy Sherald, I mentioned she still remembers her first school trip to an art museum. Her experience is a perfect example of how for many young children, a visit like that, or the first time hearing a real live symphony orchestra, are remembered for a lifetime. Occasionally those with a limited definition of education will want to know what such costly diversions have to do with education. (It’s curious that this is asked far less about football.) When those wondering are the ones holding the district purse strings, field trips to museums often wind up cut.
People eager to defend the place of art in schools sometimes try to make the case that exposure to great art can actually help academic performance in other subjects. But Dr. Jay Greene, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, acknowledges that most research has shown no direct connection between art classes and better math or reading scores.
“Each subject teaches its own particular content and skills,” he says, “and there is relatively little transfer between them.”
The relentless focus on practical education and measurable results, from K-12 and into almost every university in the country, has resulted in a shrinking focus on the arts and humanities. But to respond by saying that learning about the arts is justified because it translates into better scores on math tests or whatever is entirely wrong-headed. It portrays art as little more than a servant to other subjects and plays right into the materialistic game against which art itself ought to stand as a humanistic reprimand. Visits to art museums will not lead to higher scores on any standardized test (unless the state starts mandating one on art history, but don’t hold your breath for that).
But that doesn’t mean there are no connections at all. Greene and some associates recently sought to learn if there are any noticeable effects of field trips to art museums on fourth and fifth graders. The results they found were, in their words, surprising and completely unexpected: there does seem to be a parallel of some sort between general academic performance and museum attendance. While not discounting the evidence that calls direct correlation into question, he nevertheless says that “our best guess is that test scores may have risen because the extra arts activities increased student interest and engagement in school.”
What visits to art museums at a young age will do for students is make them more intellectually open. Art can awaken a broader curiosity that will not only encourage creativity but that can spread to other areas of intellectual endeavor. Art is, after all, an intellectual exercise. It requires an active mind to process encounters with art, and far from being a stimulation that serves only our perception of the arts themselves, it awakens us to the creative potential of humanity — that is, of ourselves.
Younger kids understand their educational experiences to be authoritative, no matter what their later attitudes and those of their parents may be. When they learn in school that the arts are worth caring and knowing about, that will stay with them. This is something to which all arts organizations worried about their future should pay close attention. Tomorrow’s potential audiences are being formed today in grade school. That’s where their future success or failure will lie.