Why the Arts Belong in Your Curriculum

It is fun to go to an eatery where the tables are covered with drawing paper and a pile of crayons. Not many people can resist grabbing the bright colors and decorating the blank space.

That desire to decorate may seem like an amusement, but it is also a significant expression of our nature as human beings. We were endowed with innate creativity. As soon as our fine motor skills allow us to do so, we decorate. In fact, much of what is known as “the fine arts” grew out of the quest to decorate: to add beauty, interest, and meaning to the spaces around us.

Artistic creativity is unique to human beings. My ranch dogs are given to digging cunningly shaped holes across our property—you might call them indented sculptures. These, however, are practical structures, vessels for their individual bodies (from rat terrier to Anatolian shepherd), scooped out by instinct to solve a variety of problems, including finding cooler dirt in the Texas heat and staking claim to a desirable patch of ground. Instinct, not creativity, is the operational force at work here.

A three-year-old, on the other hand, abounds in artistic creativity, as does that child’s thirteen-year-old sibling and everyone else up the ladder. So, when a family decorates the table covering while waiting for their pizza, the family members are actually engaged in multi-generational artistic expression. They are pursuing the serious developmental and pedagogical business of artistic creativity.

Yes, the arts are a serious means of learning within the pedagogical structure of a one-room schoolhouse or, if you will, the family home school. The arts encompass not only the visual arts (e.g., drawing, painting, sculpture, collage) but all of the arts: music, dance, drama, and poetry, as well as landscape, crafts, fashion, and design.

Let us take an example from music. Any child, no matter how young, can respond to musical sound. If we play a recording of the final movement of Mozart’s Second Flute Concerto, a child of eight can grasp the way the brilliant flute melody forms a contrast with the violin melodies. An older sibling—say age eleven—might see how the flute and violin melodies achieve a mathematical balance by echoing and enclosing one another.

A still older child, whether trained in music or not, can graph and analyze the movement’s form, known as a rondo, or at least verbalize why this pattern of repetition and contrast yields such invigorating music. With a bit of research, that child can explain why the rondo form fits well with Enlightenment aesthetics.

Even small children can usefully look at pictures and paintings of historical sites famous for their musical activities, such as Frederick the Great’s gilded Rococo music room in Sanssouci or the more restrained parlors at Monticello or the Governor’s Palace at Williamsburg—all places where music was long ago wrought for family and guests. Children can see why Mozart’s music “fits” an eighteenth-century space and why a massive composition by Mahler does not.

There are many ways to study the arts. They should not be reserved only for those with special creative gifts. Remember, many sports fans never played the games they love so dearly. While one child might decide the flute makes a pretty sound, and some day wish to learn to play it, another who has no desire to play may become intrigued by the mechanics of the flute:  its complex set of levers, rods, keys, and pads. After all, the flute works only because of the interaction between acoustics and design. Or, the child might use diagrams and pictures to learn how the eighteenth-century flute that Mozart knew changed throughout the nineteenth century in the hands of master flute maker Theobald Boehm. He can investigate what materials were used to make a flute throughout history and discover everything from bone and wood, to silver, gold, and platinum, to ivory, and even amber!

Meanwhile, the three-year-old will dance.

Never diminish the arts as a frill. Kings, generals, and bishops have known better. They were trained to appreciate the arts as a means of establishing ideal values in a society. Our modern tendency to view the arts as “extracurricular” is a damaging misconstruction. Accordingly, we may go down in history as the first society in Western culture to throw out what has always been recognized as an incontestable necessity for human development.

If study across the ages (one-room schoolhouse) is your goal, pedagogically, then reach out to the arts. Let the arts develop your students’ analytical powers and strengthen their historical understanding. Watch the arts trigger the God-given creativity of your children while it builds their cognitive (right-brain) abilities.

While we are at it, remember that adults are ideal candidates for serious encounters with the arts too. Our cognitive maturity allows unlimited exploration of the arts. Connections that were hard to see during our own school years burst forth when the arts are employed to illuminate virtually any given topic. Whatever our interest, we as adults will find parallels and extensions of that interest in the arts.

So, let your three-year-old dance, knowing that it is serious business that will reap bountiful academic rewards!