Among the first things to go when schools are cutting resources are arts education programs. Even though creativity and innovation are the catchphrases of today’s workforce, the arts are not always considered essential to the formation of healthy, informed, well-rounded, and well-educated citizens—despite the many studies that have proven the arts’ importance in child development. It has been shown that arts education is instrumental in mental health as well—participating in creative activities and art-making is often cited as one of the best ways to cultivate stability and happiness.
Although there is a lot of jargon thrown around about the benefits of the arts, I think in some ways that the most basic definition of arts education lies in its communicative ability, or the projection of something from within to the outside. At the individual level, this means developing the courage to put something from inside one’s own imagination into reality and then witnessing its effect. This type of agency and active engagement with the world that is taught through the arts is not just supplementary, but necessary for social change. As the 2008 President’s Committee Report suggests, art is a foundational part of education, not an “extra” element: “The value of arts education is often phrased in enrichment terms—helping kids find their voice, rounding out their education and tapping into their undiscovered talents. This is true, but as President’s Committee saw in schools all over the country, it is also an effective tool in school-wide reform and fixing some of our biggest educational challenges. It is not a flower, but a wrench.”
Creativity and art-making have always resonated at the personal level for me, but in the past two years I have had the opportunity to witness its power for children as a part of the Harlem-based arts nonprofit organization Artistic Dreams International at the George Bruce Library on 125th Street. Through this experience, I’ve seen even more evidence that arts education and creative development can have far-reaching effects in every corner of society. It’s been incredible to watch the students that we have had from the beginning of our program little by little unlock their creative potential, expand their minds, and grow more confident in expressing thoughts, criticisms, and emotions. From Jason, who became more willing to talk in school after engaging with art at ADI, to Shiwa, who has become a mentor for her sister and other younger children in the program, each student that has consistently participated in our program has grown in his or her ability to absorb even the most abstract of art concepts and apply them to his or her own creative visions.
I have seen how art-making and creativity naturally spur community-building, collaboration, and teamwork. I’ve witnessed the unprecedented power of opening up children’s minds and engaging them with creating work that is relevant to their own emotions, providing a window into a deeper form of engagement with their families and neighborhoods. I’ve seen them naturally move to collaborate with one another, borrowing and sharing techniques, or purposefully bolstering each other during critique to ensure that everyone feels confident about their work.
Creativity is a foundational aspect of community, and the visual arts and other methods of creative engagement with one another form strong bonds and provide sustainable solutions for conflict resolution and fortifying community at the micro and macro levels. Most importantly, art-making gives kids the agency to reimagine their environments, project their own visions into reality, and then see those visions realized, acknowledged, and supported by their peers and those in the classroom.
So we might ask, “What can arts education mean for us at Columbia if it is, in fact, so foundational to community-building and cultivation?” When we talk about mental health on campus, thinking about creative outlets and creative space (mental, emotional, and physical) is essential. When we foster an environment in which every individual’s internal visions are valued and shared, we affirm the depth of knowledge and experience that rests inside all of us, unknowable and as wide as the world itself.
Emily Neil is a Barnard College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. She is a former Spectator theater associate. Stolen Moments runs alternate Fridays.