Why Does the Arts Matter? This Former Teacher Explains

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It’s no secret that the arts are being neglected in our schools, even as we’ve been reminded of the importance of a well-rounded education. But why do the arts matter?

The general public tends to think art is just for the entertainment industry and not something we should be teaching anymore, but (at least for me) that’s a little confusing.

Telling kids to “be creative” and “think outside of the box” without giving them any artistic training is like going to a foreign country without knowing their language and expecting them to understand you. It’s like studying math but never hearing about algebra or geometry. It’s like reading a recipe but never learning how to cook. You might be able to get by with this approach in some situations, but it’s pretty unlikely you’ll ever achieve your full potential, and you could end up doing a lot more harm than good along the way.

You don’t need to be an artist or even particularly creative to appreciate art. We all know beautiful things when we see them, whether they’re paintings or sculptures or poems or dances or games or movies. They make us feel something. They remind us of our shared humanity. They bring us together instead of driving us apart; they give us something in common with

We often hear that the arts are as important as science and math, but why? Is it because they teach critical thinking and problem solving? Or do they instill in students a love of learning or some other intangible benefit?

The answer is all of the above. While much has been written about the value of STEM education, less attention has been paid to what we should be doing to prepare students to enter a workforce where they must also be “critical thinkers.” Here’s what I’ve discovered through my experience as a teacher and administrator:

1. There is a huge demand for critical thinking skills in the workplace.

2. The arts help develop critical thinking skills.

3. The arts can provide an excellent foundation for any student interested in pursuing STEM careers. Here’s how:

Critical Thinking Skills Are Valued in the Workplace

The first thing to understand is that employers want employees who can think critically–employers want people who can solve problems, ask questions, and make decisions. Here are some examples of how employers openly state this desire:


I had the privilege of teaching high school art for three years. During that time, I taught AP Studio Art to a group of very bright and motivated kids. This was a class I developed from scratch in order to give the students a well-rounded art education – one that included drawing, painting, sculpture and photography.

The art program seemed to be going well. The students were enthusiastic about their work and eager to participate in class. My fellow teachers were complimentary. Yet something felt amiss. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t feel like I was reaching many of my students.

I couldn’t figure out what the problem was until I had the opportunity to spend a day observing an elementary art teacher at work. What I saw was stunningly different from what happened in my own classroom. Her students were also enthusiastic and engaged – but in a completely different way than my students. They loved creating artwork, but they also valued critique and deep discussion about it as well. They talked openly about how their artwork related to other works, both past and present.

For me, this experience helped me realize that there are two sides to the arts: creation and criticism/evaluation. Art is not only expressed through creative output but also through critical analysis and interpretation – which is

The first time I was asked to critique a student’s art, I declined. I didn’t have the background to accurately judge their work, I explained. It wasn’t until my mentor at the time insisted I give it a try that I accepted.

I was scared that the student would ask me questions about the creative process and why their work wasn’t good enough. But she didn’t. She thanked me for my input and said she’d use it when creating her next piece.

I learned an important lesson that day: Students don’t know everything. They often just need guidance in navigating the learning process.*

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “visual arts” before. It is commonly used to describe a broad range of art forms including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture and the graphic arts. However, some people argue that music and dance are also art forms and should be included in the visual arts. The reason for this is that these art forms express themselves visually in different ways.

Just as a professional athlete needs to practice, train, and stretch daily in order to keep his or her body fit for competition, aspiring artists need to practice and study their craft to develop the skills needed for success.

Trying new techniques, studying artists that inspire you, developing new skills, and incorporating those skills into your process will help you develop your own unique style. And once you have begun to develop your own style, you will have a solid foundation on which to build.

Art is not just about self-expression; it is also about developing a unique voice that only you can give expression to. For example, if I ask my young students to make a self-portrait using only circles and squares, they make faces with circles for eyes and mouths and squares for everything else. The next day I ask them again, but this time they add triangles and rectangles to the mix. They are still looking themselves in the mirror, but now they are incorporating more sophisticated shapes. The third day we try triangles and squares mixed in with some basic shapes like ovals or diamonds. Now the artwork is getting more abstracted but still represents their faces – kind of a cubist interpretation of a self portrait.

The point is that now my students are expressing more than

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