The international evidence is crystal clear on the value of the arts in education.  Children in arts rich schools do better academically across all areas of the curriculum. They are more engaged and motivated to come to school.  Children who play musical instruments do better at maths, children who do drama are better at writing. Children who have access to the arts begin to understand and value the power of the imagination.  Children who learn to love the arts become adults whose lives are enriched by poetry, dance, music, theatre, and mixed media.  They see the possibility and validity of a career in the arts for themselves. Graduates from university courses in the arts have the soft skills increasingly valued by employers:  creativity, flexibility, a willingness and ability to think and act with an artist’s mind and body.

Yet learning in the arts teach you that there is more to life than work. As children and young people learn in the arts they make beautiful things, they move gracefully with others, they blend their voices in harmony. With a stroke of a brush they create something new, something never seen before.  Making art makes children’s friends and families lives lighter and easier through their performances, in their gifts of the art they make.

The arts are important in schools not just because of these things. They are valuable in and of themselves.

The arts are as vital in schools as they are everywhere else because the arts are carriers of hope. In a country where we have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, having the arts awaken young people to the possibilities of joy, of wonder and beauty is not a luxury. The arts are the processes all cultures use to make sense of the worlds in which we live and provide us with the tools to imagine what they might be. In this way the arts must be the heartbeat of education. We need an alive education system committed to making new generations of artists so we can reimagine our history, our present and our future. Out of our griefs for the past and our dreams of the future we remake who we are.

We know the arts therefore should be a basic right in every school, not driven to the edges of universities and tertiary education, something that comes and goes on the whim of individual principals and Vice chancellors driven by the dictates of a misunderstanding of the importance of STEM industries.

I was the National Coordinator for Drama with the Ministry of Education overseeing the introduction of the Arts curriculum when it was made compulsory in 2003. A previous Minister of the Arts, who was also a Prime Minister, invested over $15million into growing the arts in schools.  During that time the Arts were the fastest growing subjects at senior secondary level and beginning to grow at primary level. And yet now they have all but disappeared in our schools, in our university teacher training programmes and are under enormous threat within our universities. They have disappeared within a Ministry of Education which has no idea or interest in the arts or creativity, and what they mean to us as individuals or as a nation. I have recently been invited to speak to school principal groups around the country. When I speak of the arts there is often a wistful look, an acknowledgment that they have been surrendered. When I suggested in Dunedin recently that the arts might be the biggest winner in the current government’s reforms of education, the principals stood in spontaneous prolonged applause.

The arts also remind us that schooling is a public good. Education philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that the death of the arts in schools and universities (especially with the focus on STEM subjects) is a threat to global democracy.  The arts provide us with the capacity to imagine and feel what it is to be the other. At a time in history where some world leaders deliberately feed on our fears of the other, empathy becomes the key competency of 21st century living. For without empathy, fundamental beliefs reduce our humanity. Terror and despair replaces hope. If we are to survive the coming years, it will be because we learn to live together and to empathise with each other. It will be through acknowledging and respecting our collective and individual humanity through the arts.

Seamus Heaney wrote

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

There is hope for a sea change for education.  How our best artists and creative thinkers might work to reshape our education system; how we might successfully build partnerships between the creative industries and schools; how we make our universities and schools more responsive to the power of the arts so we might tell our stories to ourselves and the world is the real possibility of deep and abiding change. It is time for hope and history to rhyme.

This opinion piece is based on a presentation Peter O’Connor gave at the Creative Economy Conversation in Wellington. Peter leads education for the WeCreate organisation which organised the event. The Prime Minister attended along with 150 leaders of the creative industries and government department senior officials.

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