A man's reach must exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for.
— Robert Browning, 1855
About 2,400 years ago, Plato wrote, “Music and dance are more potent instruments than any other for education because the rhythm and harmony find their way in the inward places of the soul.”
Painting, sculpting, writing, dancing, music, acting, all of the arts, help us to express our thoughts and feelings. They provide us with tools for coping with — and changing — the social landscape. The arts are a connection between history and today. The arts are an ongoing exploration of who we are, and, perhaps more importantly, who we can be.
For several years, my wife, Marged, and I worked with Outreach programs in New York City, mainly in the less advantaged schools in Harlem and the south Bronx. We brought music, dance, and creative writing programs to schools that no longer had the funds to budget for them.
Our goal was to give every child the opportunity to create their own stories — in writing, in music, in dance — and to perform them in front of a live audience. If students can demonstrate their creative talent in front of a live audience, they have achieved the self-confidence that is a major part of the success of learning.
This is one of the values of the arts; they provide a medium for creating that confidence. We all can learn basic skills — reading, writing, and arithmetic — once we have the confidence. By achieving this level of confidence for all children, whatever their station in life, there will have been created an environment of equality and recognition that can have an unstoppable positive effect on individual behavior and group dynamics. To quote from the performer of an eighth-grade class in Harlem, “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I undTerstand.”
We developed collaborative arts classes in dance, theatre, music, visual arts, and creative writing, for grades three through 12. Each discipline was taught separately, but they all came together for the purpose of presenting a school performance that was created and produced by the students. The performance was where all the joys and frustrations and the pain of these students became manageable to them. It was a medium for dealing with the violence in their lives, by first expressing it and examining it, and then by rejecting it, instead of being apathetic about it. They communicated this to their audience with wild enthusiasm. The performance was presented to the entire student body, as well as teachers, administrators, parents, extended family, and friends. When it was finished, they all looked at these children, and each other, in a new light.
Given the opportunity, all students can perform to a high standard. Creating this opportunity is a job for the schools, in partnership with artists, teachers, parents, and students. The carryover effect into other areas of learning is significant. Numerous studies have shown a direct correlation between participation in the arts and achieving higher test scores in standardized academic testing, regardless of the students' socio-economic background. Students, who regularly participate in the arts, show an increased development of other skills — especially those used in achieving greater proficiency in mathematics and literacy. The arts also provide a context for discussing and understanding our social problems, both contemporary and historical.
These principles apply no matter the venue or the social and economic status. The problems are universal. They make themselves felt equally, though sometimes differently, in the affluent suburbs of San Francisco, the working class neighborhoods of Pittsburgh or of Birmingham, Ala., the ghettos of New York or Houston, or in the small towns and Indian reservations of the Hi-Line of north-central Montana.
Although the student-produced performances were important, and fun, the true value of the program was in the process of empowering both the student and the classroom teacher, working together, to integrate the arts into all of the student's learning experiences, and involving the community in that process.
The arts should be an invigorating aspect of education, a spiritual and intellectual nourishment and a constructive way of communicating and of expressing our thoughts and feelings. They provide a tool for breaking down the cultural and racial barriers that society has erected. The students' experiences, perceptions and knowledge expand, as do their horizons.
The arts are what define a people and inform us about ourselves. The overarching theme of the arts is understanding and tolerance, insight and compassion; to go beyond ourselves. What could be more valuable today than this?
(Norman Bernstein lives in Havre.)