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Music, Gym, and Art Should Be Mandatory Subjects in K-12 Schools

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As a parent and an educator, I have heard lamentations coming from school boards, districts, and state education departments about budget problems many times over the years. Sadly, this always seems to come at the horrific price of cutting programs – usually art, music, and gym are the first things to go followed by athletic programs and sometimes even sports teams. I am sure that many parents would agree that this is simply unacceptable regardless of the financial issues that initiate these proposed eliminations.

After reading a recent NPR article regarding Milwaukee Public Schools, I felt that there may be light on the horizon. In that city it had long been the practice to cut these “special” subject areas in order to save money. So called “special” teachers worked part-time in a number of different schools (one day a week in each). Here in New York that sounds very familiar; however, there are cases where students never even see an art or music teacher at all in some schools nationwide.
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Milwaukee’s renaissance is a welcome sign to parents everywhere, and the administrators there see the implementation of new art, music, and gym classes as a way of “attracting more families and boosting academic achievement.” Schools superintendent Gregory Thornton notes that these subjects are “a vital part of the balance of a young person’s educational agenda.”

For far too long educators and politicians have been worried about test scores – usually in relation to English and Math – and anything that falls out of the periphery of contributing to higher scores seems to be on the chopping block. Even seeing a story like this, there will no doubt be those who say this is a waste of resources. There are many who wouldn’t mind if our children never played volleyball, listened to Mozart, or learned anything about Picasso. What a sad state of education it would be if our children never experienced any of those things.

As a former school administrator, I witnessed the benefits of art, music, and physical education contributing to the greater academic and social well-being of students and the school. Students who never excel in other subject areas can be superstars in these “special” subjects, offering them affirmation and opportunities for advancement. I have always felt education should be a matter a teaching and inspiring the “whole” child, and schools without art, music, and gym are definitely institutions with glaring holes in their structure. Imagine those schools as if they were the Titanic, and those lost programs would be their iceberg.

arts 2have seen many cases where a student who excels in art/music/gym class improves his/her work in other classes. Because of the recognition of the child’s talent and boost to self-esteem, there is a growing sense of accomplishment that can be extended to other areas. This is why as an administrator I have always supported “special” programs as nothing but what they should be – an integral part of a well-rounded educational program.

One time long ago when pitching full-time gym, art, and music programs in my school, I spoke bluntly to a school board wanting to eliminate those programs. I said, “Imagine your world without being able to touch, to see, or to hear.” That got their attention. I continued, “Taking away gym is like losing the sense of touch; taking away art is like being unable to see, and taking away music is like being deaf. Ostensibly, you’re advocating a loss of three of the five senses for our children when you are proposing a budget to remove these programs from our school.” Happily, the board proceeded in restoring funding for those programs after that meeting.

Needless to say, we know schools districts will at times face financial challenges; that is a given in the modern world; however, cutting programs that parents, students, and their teachers see as essential is not a wise way to go about saving money. A more sound way to cut corners is to scale back or eliminate the wasted time and talent that goes into assessments. The exorbitant amount of money invested in testing each year – and the associated hours lost training teachers for scoring and then having them score the exams – amounts to highway robbery of parents’ tax dollars by school districts and state education departments.
arts 3I propose that every K-12 school in the United States be mandated to provide physical education, art, and music classes as part of their daily schedule. Ideally, the teachers in these classes may be evaluated as “special” educators (due to their excellent work) but come to be seen as part of the regular fabric that makes up the scholastic tapestry.

Of course, I am concerned with academic subjects, but all the solved math problems in the world, all the proper grammar taught, and the fervent appreciation for literature engendered are nice but not enough. As a parent, I want my children to have a complete scholastic experience, and that means being exposed to healthy activity in gym class, learning about great artists such as Monet and Picasso and trying to emulate their work, and listening to a wide variety of music, learning about musicians and their various styles, and being taught how to play an instrument or two.

Milwaukee Public Schools have taken an initiative that makes sound sense academically as well as fiscally speaking. More parents will be drawn to schools that offer a full academic program that includes art, music, and gym. Now that Milwaukee has lit the torch, we can only hope that districts nationwide will see the light and follow in the same direction.



Photo credits: npr, lillstreet.com, denver.cbslocal.com

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana's stories, articles, and poems have been published in literary magazines and online. His books 'A Death in Prague' (2002), 'Move' (2003), 'The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories' (2005), and 'Like a Passing Shadow' (2009) are available in print, online, and as e-books. His latest books 'If the Fates Allow: New York Christmas Stories,' 'Garden of Ghosts,' and 'Flashes in the Pan' are available exclusively on Amazon. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated on writing mostly fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as a faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with 'Blogcritics Magazine' since July 2005 and has written well over 500 articles; previously co-head sports editor, he now is a Culture and Society editor. Having traveled extensively, Victor has visited six continents and intends to get to Antarctica someday where he figures a few ideas for new stories await him.
  • wordwar

    I think these programs should be available to all students. I disagree that all should be mandatory for each student. Certainly all students should have some physical education, but it absolutely needs to be tailored to the needs and preferences of the student. Many schools offer gym as a way to get their losing-streak, inter-scholastic teams a chance to vent on ill-prepared nerds, geeks, and dorks. The easy victory improves their mood and makes them more likely to win the next “real” game. When the non-jock outcasts finish up with school they grow into adults who make every effort to avoid gyms out of fear of ever re-living the maltreatment and humiliation of their youth. Result: Obesity and sedentary disease epidemic.

    Kids should be offered alternatives such as a simple aerobics, yoga or weight training class that is not based on competition with far superior peers. Other students might do better at tennis, cycling or Aikido than traditional team ball sports like flag football or volleyball. Teamwork is a good skill to develop, but that doesn’t mean that teamwork should primarily be learned within the context of the most popular contact sports. Students at the lower 25% end of the popularity scale are often singled out for abuse by those seeking to demonstrate their dominance or just to vent their frustrations with their own failings. No one should be coerced into playing contact sports with such individuals with threat of failing grades, repeating the class, or disciplinary measures.

    As for mandatory art and music, these subjects do not fare well with students who lack much interest in one, the other, or both. For some, keeping them engaged with four full years of reading and analyzing fictional stories during literature class is pushing them enough. Some of these students are very focused on their academic and career success, and can find ways to entertain themselves or pursue hobbies on their own time. Make the classes available, make them interesting, and offer varying content to draw broad appeal. But not everyone is going to “enjoy” marching band. In fact, the main point of art is human enjoyment, so punishing the unwilling with mandatory art to the point that they are miserable will only backfire, and you end up with people who become even more socially isolated and avoid culture altogether.

    Given that many of these students will have to work two jobs or one 80 hour/week job just to continue their existence, preparing them for a life of playing music, dancing, acting, and painting is likely going to just lead to major disappointment for many. It’s also quite presumptuous to suggest that all people should be learning to emulate the works of “great” artists (almost exclusively Western European); it is culturally elitist, as who really defines which art or artist is “great”? It is a subjective social norm while those with diverging viewpoints are treated to scorn and ridicule (or failing grades) until they confirm. It doesn’t teach self-expression (a highly overrated concept anyhow), as following the instructions to complete a particular art project or performance results in the expression of the instructor’s will, not that of the student.

    As for social and/or emotional development, research has shown that while introverts can be coerced to publicly behave and pass as extroverts, the introverts are very happy and quick to return to the quiet, less crowded side of the public arena as soon as the restraints are removed . Introverts forced into extroverted activities can suffer substantial stress, but we do it to them because it’s “good” for them (supposedly); yet we would never force an extrovert to spend one day a week quiet in their room reading, working on a solitary hobby, or enjoying nature on their own. Children and young adults on the Asperger’s spectrum are routinely subjected to harm, ridicule, forced socialization and a questioned sense of self-worth despite the fact that most of the major achievements in human history have been brought to you by the “ill-adjusted”, “fidgety”, “unbalanced”, “non-well-rounded”, and “socially inept”, such as the likes of Newton, Edison, Einstein, Turing, Jack Kilby, and many more. Pioneers in the arts, such as Poe, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolf, Edvard Munch and others weren’t so well rounded and balanced either.

    I totally agree that arts are essential in school, and most people benefit from a liberal and well-rounded education. That said, there are going to be savants who excel in arts or science but simply lack the desire, motivation, or capability to succeed in those activities intended for the other half of their brain. We need an education that accommodates the special needs of these talented students rather than stigmatizing them as “incomplete”.