The arts are of incalculable worth in what it means to be a human being

By Elaine Awolaja. Elaine, 20, lives in Chicago, USA. She is studying anthropology at Northwestern University. She is on a year abroad from UCL in the UK.

Words spoken by Philip Pullman in rightfully annoyed response to a marked reduction in excursions to theatres and other art-centered outings in primary and secondary schools in favour of tests and in-class learning in; solely because they are considered to “take time away from [students’] lessons” (Addley, 2015). The arts, however, include not only theatrical and musical performances, but also digital and tangible visual art, poetry, spoken word and dance; which are all vital expressive languages for human development. Human beings are naturally artistic, whereby for a majority of human history, humans around the world have utilised a variety of forms of artistic production as a mode of self-expression and progression. In understanding education to be an aspect of development, and development as what it means to be human, one can see the merit of an education in the arts; which aside from nurturing students’ creativity, gives them access to creations of humans of the past in the form of inspiration.

A recognition of the merit of engagement in artistic endeavours translates seamlessly into the education system. Loris Malaguzzi rightly realised this with his development of the Reggio Emilia approach to schooling (Becker, 2009) whereby a new system of education was introduced to Italy based on a desire to teach children new ways of learning and supply them with “a hundred languages” through which they can express themselves using all of their available “expressive, communicative, and cognitive languages,” artistic mediums being a vital one of these. The approach is essentially a combination of distinctive features of social constructivist theory, progressive education, and Italian postwar left-reform politics blended with elements of the city’s history and culture and regional traditions of participatory democracy, in attempt to create a supportive and nurturing environment for children to excel academically.

Vygotskian social constructivist theory (1978) suggests that children’s modes of thinking are socially constructed and are developed in their social interactions with others via which they are scaffolded up zones of proximal development. Constructivist theories emphasise the importance of independent research, analysis, and reflection in the acquisition of skills and knowledge with a “systematic focus on symbolic representation.” These in combination with features of progressive education and left-reform politics such as collaborative projects, and experiential learning quickly made the Reggio Emilia approach a point of reference for others in Europe and worldwide as it was seen to challenge “structural reasons for the schools’ educational failures” (Becker, 2009) which include standardized curricula, hierarchical and imbalanced teacher-student relationships, and the unreliability of tests to name a few. Similarly, the Montessori approach to education assumes a constructivist stance to teaching, and is committed to academic advancement by means of interaction with the environment, emphasising the importance of beauty and harmony in creation through a work environment that facilitates movement and activity, placing an emphasis on adopting a multi-sensory approach to exploring the world.

Education could be considered to be a human universal, not only within schools as part of a curriculum, but in everyday interactions with one’s surroundings. This is evidenced genetically in the human tendency to grow, not only physically, but also mentally, spiritually, and in all other facets of life. As well as a human universal, education can be considered to be primarily a tool of passing on cultural heritage between generations, facilitating the survival of cultural identity. It is thus apparent that if an artistic component was thusly disvalued and omitted, a vital part of students’ education would be missing. Artistic endeavours outside the classroom also offer culturally-diverse students the opportunity to explore wider cultural references often not covered by their core syllabus, thus allowing new identity references and growth potentialities. These would also be effective in reducing students’ knowledge gaps due to socioeconomic barriers of access to such ‘higher arts’ events. An approach to education completely devoid of any artistic interventions would demonstrate the worth of the arts in an educational framework as art is vital for piquing students’ imaginations and inspiring them to create; as in experiencing higher artistic forms, these children can then begin to emulate and be inspired by these ideas to create their own, resulting in a more inclusive arts sphere with more creatives of historically gathered backgrounds.

The arts could only be of great value within a child’s academic life, in encouraging them to think more creatively and even critically. Anglo-American educational models in of the present day are largely test-based, of which a lot of these tests are essay-based. All forms of writing could technically be thought of as artistic expression in their transformation of thoughts to tangible, sharable activity; whereby in thinking of writing as a “personally engaging social activity” (Bruffee, 2007), we can begin to see the value of writing as an art form in its permission of creative idea exchange. The arts therefore already play a central role in education, thus an increase could only be more beneficial than detrimental. Upon consideration of alternative methods of schooling which highlight other aspects of education other than the value of scientific and arithmetic understanding, we see approaches which still nurture the academic growth in their glorification of imaginative and artistic endeavours; evidencing that learning of disposable knowledge is valuable nonetheless but only has its value amplified in its conception within an artistic framework.


Addley, E. (2015) Philip Pullman Decries ‘Terrible State’ Of Children’s Education In The Arts. The Guardian. Web.

Becker, H. S. (1972). A school is a lousy place to learn anything. American Behavioral Scientist 16(1): 85-105.

Bruffee, K. (2007) “What Being a Peer Writing Tutor Can Do for You”

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletter!