This summer, the U.K. government announced a plan to cut 50% of its funding to art programs in higher education, impacting programs such as art and design, media studies, music and performing arts. The Former Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson claims that this decision leaves more funding available for STEM courses, which help train future employees to work in public services that have come into high demand during the pandemic.
This tendency of policymakers to view art education as an expendable part of curricula is not limited to the United Kingdom. In the United States, policymakers under the Trump Administration debated eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, despite it consists of only 0.003% of the federal budget. Especially due to the economic constraints of the pandemic, total U.S. legislative appropriations for art education in FY2021 dropped 17.9% from that of FY2020. This decrease represents a 38.7% drop from FY2001, according to a recent report by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.
Contrary to the beliefs of legislators who view art education as disposable, it is crucial to students’ personal development. Students in rural and low-income regions are disproportionately affected by budget cuts that prioritize tested subjects such as math and science. These students, however, are the ones who can potentially benefit the most from art education. Research by the NASAA shows that at-risk youth from lower socioeconomic strata demonstrate increased engagement with academic opportunities and civic activities in correlation with greater exposure to art education. By interacting with the arts, students experience something that they can’t gain elsewhere: the freedom to cultivate their own growth by practicing self-awareness, empathy and creativity.
Art education is an invaluable chance to experience complete freedom without overly-punitive grading. Art lends itself to more generous grading, perhaps because teachers recognize that each piece is rooted in personal experience. On Art Class Curator, a platform that empowers art educators, many wrote that their system of grading art focuses more on the process and effort than the end product. For the students, this is an enormous relief. Answering the question of why it is important to study art, a student said: “School in general is so stressful … this (art) is the one lesson I look forward to every week because I know it’s not going to majorly stress me out.”
Because art is so subjective, art classrooms can become particularly non-judgmental spaces on a school campus. Emboldened by this creative license and free from the pressure to achieve “good results,” students can instead focus solely on expressing themselves. Art removes the apprehensions of grades and competition, leaving open a space full of creative possibility.
Students also practice self-awareness, empathy and creativity in art. They will likely encounter projects that require rigorous self-investigation and ruminations on personal identity and emotion. To translate lived experiences into artistic expression, students need to draw themselves out of an often deeply emotional place and reexamine it from various narrative perspectives. They then need to harmonize these understandings into a creative vision that can be grasped by viewers. The aim of this practice aligns with that of art therapy, which is proven to heighten emotional and behavioral stability by helping participants recognize and embrace their emotions.
Not only do students practice self-awareness and empathy in art classes, but they also cultivate creativity by expressing their ideas with a limited tool set. Contrary to expectations, the limited art materials in a school art room are perhaps the best catalysts for creativity. Research finds that scarce resources force consumers to innovate new ways to use a product. Similarly, in art, students must creatively problem-solve to make the most of the tools at their disposal.
Every skill practiced in art classrooms is a component of social and emotional learning, which not only provides the crucial skills to forge a successful career but the skills to become a well-rounded human being. As education increasingly focuses on preprofessional training for hard skills, art education has the unique power to ground students by preserving a stress-free space that allows students to explore their personal identities through reflection and creative interpretations of these reflections. Only with a robust financial investment in arts education across the nation can this be achieved and protected.