Non-necessity. That’s what some education leaders and politicians call the arts. The sentiment mostly comes up when funding goes down, but before anyone uses that absurd term to describe arts education, I hope that person would stop and imagine a life without the arts: no music, no dance, no theater, no visual arts, no literature. I can’t fathom the emptiness and the boredom that would be left.
Certainly, the core academic subjects are important. We need our schools to steep young people in the rational thought processes involved in language, mathematics, science, and social studies. We need them to become adults who can think and communicate and interact with other people and with the natural world. But that isn’t all we need them to know how to do.
Creative thought is a great necessity to move the human race forward, since, it’s pretty clear, things aren’t perfect here on Planet Earth just yet. And if we’re to solve the problems of our century, we desperately need creative thinkers, not just more and more employees. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his 1821 Defence of Poetry that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” These dreamers, who the Romantics praised and sought to be, teach us about ourselves, even about those things we’d prefer not to know.
It takes a short-sighted view of both education and humanity to regard education as nothing but job training, yet some naysayers against arts education proclaim their stance by asking, “How’s a kid gonna get a job with that?” To that logic, I can only reply, “So if a kid can’t get job throwing a ball through a hoop or tackling people, should we eliminate basketball and football?” No, arts education provides hands-on learning experiences that show children how to think creatively, how to do more than regurgitate what they’ve been instructed to repeat, how to combine and re-combine existing elements in new ways. No matter the medium, that’s what arts education does.
And that is why the arts will never be non-necessity— because we need those “unacknowledged legislators” to lead us through the great human conundrums that, so far, don’t seem to be solved.