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Commentary: Why Ask Why About the Arts?


Music provides intangible benefits by engaging the imagination and communicating ideas and emotions that words cannot adequately express

By Hal Abeles

Why ask the question?

Why should music (or any of the arts) be part of the school curriculum? Answers abound in the literature of music education professional groups or on the Web sites of advocates for the arts in schools. They cite strong empirical evidence that studying the arts is “good for kids.” Indeed, evidence suggests that music, when taught well, enhances almost every quality and trait we want in a fully functioning member of society, from creativity to test-taking ability to self-regulation.

My question is, “Why must we justify the place of music and the other arts in schools in the first place?” Pre-service music teachers often are asked to write a rationale for music in the curriculum. Yet we don’t ask students in math, literacy or science education to do this.

During the 2008 campaign, President Obama said, “In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education…” That’s a laudable stance, but it ties not only music but education in general too strongly to the singular goal of improving our economic competitiveness.

Beyond quantifiable and tangible outcomes, music provides intangible benefits by engaging the imagination and communicating ideas and emotions that words cannot adequately express. As Elliot Eisner says, the arts “are among the most powerful ways we become human and that is reason enough to earn them a place in our schools.”

Music and the other arts will struggle for their place in the curriculum as long as our political leaders believe the primary purpose of education is to produce a competitive workforce. How can we change that belief? Unfortunately, the answer is circular. There is evidence that children who receive a strong arts education understand the centrality of the arts in producing an intelligent and imaginative populace. We need to elect leaders who have had a strong education in music and the other arts.

Hal Abeles is Professor of Music Education


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