Shutting arts out of schools limits students, nation

April 10, 2004


Several years ago, while I was U.S. ambassador to Ireland, the renowned violinist Isaac Stern came to Dublin to speak on the power of the arts. Standing at the podium, he began to slowly tap his hand against the wood, setting an even yet rhythmic tempo as he spoke. ''Music is the first sound a person hears,'' he said, continuing his steady beat. ''It is the sound of a mother's heartbeat.''

This is a fundamental yet critical notion. Long before we learn words, numbers and rules, it is sound, texture, color, light and movement that surround our senses. The arts are our most basic form of language, the language through which children first begin to communicate, whether they beat a drum, scribble with crayons, or rock to a gentle beat. As my brother President John F. Kennedy said, rather than an interruption or distraction, the arts are very close to the center of a nation's purpose and the test of the quality of our civilization.

Last month in Chicago, arts educators and administrators from around the nation and world gathered for a groundbreaking conference on how to better integrate the arts into our schools. The event -- the inaugural VSA arts Institute -- is hosted by VSA arts, www., an international nonprofit organization based in Washington that forges connections between the arts, education and disability. In its 30th year, VSA arts sponsors artistic and educational programs that encourage fully integrated creative arts endeavors in every aspect of society. The Institute is VSA arts' latest and arguably most critical initiative to date.

In America today we are coming dangerously close to shutting the arts out of our schools and, in turn, our society in a continuing quest for excellence in education. On Capitol Hill and in statehouses throughout the country, political leaders are enacting legislation that seeks to improve performance in the schools by standardizing test results across the board. The goal of these efforts is to achieve more measurable academic excellence. However, an unanticipated side effect is that teachers no longer have the resources or the time to instruct children in less measurable pursuits, most notably the creative arts.

America is forgetting the role the arts have played in our growth as a nation, and the role they are capable of playing in fostering understanding between peoples of all races, colors, creeds and abilities. Throughout history, when countries have risen up against each other in military strength, the artist has reminded us of our common humanity. When all communication between warring nations seems lost, it is often through music or poetry or the visual arts that the first words of reconciliation are shared.

This language of understanding, tolerance and reconciliation must be taught and nurtured among our youngest citizens. The arts are especially critical for children who do not fit the mold of the ''typical student'' or learn in traditional ways. These include children with dyslexia, ADHD or physical disabilities. The creative arts provide students the opportunity for self-expression, communication and independence that they cannot learn from a textbook or express on a standardized test. Incorporating the arts in the classroom pays an academic dividend as well.

The College Entrance Examination Board has confirmed that students who participate in the arts score nearly 100 points higher on the SAT than students who do not. Recent studies also show that students who participate in school music programs score higher in reading, mathematics, language and on overall academic achievement. And studies have documented that when the arts are brought into the classroom, teachers gain confidence in their ability to reach every student. The arts provide critical links for learning that carry over into all academic disciplines, helping young people become better students today, and more engaged, more productive members of society in the future.

Today, let us not allow our quest for measurable excellence to trample that excellence that cannot be quantified, rated or contained. Americans can and should rediscover our national will to allow our own students to realize their full potential, their power of self-expression through the arts.

Jean Kennedy Smith founded VSA arts 30 years ago to provide greater access to the arts for children and adults with disabilities.

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