September 4, 2014

A Little Light Reading! “Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education”

Reading Time:   3 mins

By Theodore Wiprud

With the last few days of summer, I’ve actually had a few hours to peruse reports and listen to CDs people send me.  So here I am scanning a publication from OECD – the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based in Paris, titled Art for Art’s Sake? The Impact of Arts Education (  A tidy 264-page 2013 book, it understandably went on my “read-later” shelf, and this may not sound like the most inspiring reading to launch a new season. But I’m glad I did finally open it (and I hope many others in the Roundtable have done so already).

Ellen Winner, Thalia Goldstein, and Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin undertake a massive meta-analysis of studies published in any OECD country, since the 2000 publication of Hetland and Winner’s “Reviewing Education and the Arts.”  Literally hundreds of studies about non-arts outcomes in every arts discipline are combined for statistical power.  And the result remains pretty similar to what was found in 2000 – that compelling findings in some studies are balanced by mixed or negative findings in others, so that almost every claim we might advance about transfer of skills or creativity or behavior modification is suspect.

I do not find this discouraging, and I don’t think you should either.  I‘ve always thought seeking such correlation and justification outside the arts can be interesting, but can easily distract us from the real substance of the arts.   Ultimately, as the authors say, “the impact of arts education on other non-arts skills and on innovation in the labor market should not be the primary justification for arts education in today’s curricula.  The arts have been in existence since the earliest humans, are parts of all cultures, and are a major domain of human experience… The arts are important in their own rights for education.”

They also remind us that it’s the teaching that makes the difference.  An inspiring science teacher can have more impact on creativity than a dull music teacher.  It’s not the dance class per se changes everything for a kid, it’s the dancer as teacher, and it’s dancing itself.  If we promote the subject matter as a silver bullet for learning, we’re chasing rainbows.

Access to arts education is critical, and still way too uneven, as we are newly aware through recent NYC-based reports.  But I think it’s time for our conversation to move on from simply who’s getting the arts or not, to what kind of instruction is going on.  We’ve been at this for decades now in cultural organizations and as teaching artists, and for far longer in regular school-based instruction.  We have a good idea what good teaching looks like – granted it can take many, many forms.  It’s up to us to bring the promise of the arts alive in teaching and learning.  Every day.  I find that a bracing and inspiring thought for the coming year.

And I also get a little thrill out of the idea that OECD, looking out for economic development of 34 countries, with a budget of $500 million, commissions a report on this topic.  That’s a big-time forum.