In education, among the first things to be cut in tough times are arts programs. What a mistake. That’s like trying to save water by cutting all the leaves off a tree in your front yard. Yeah, you’ll reduce your water bill. But without the shade those leaves provide, your electricity costs will go through the roof. And the tree will soon be a dried up, brittle collection of dead twigs.
Study after study shows that creative expression — especially music — is tremendously important to the development of children’s brains. It literally makes them smarter.
Steve Lopez’s article Sunday in the Los Angeles Times makes this very clear. He explains that studying music physically enlarges the corpus callosum, the structure that connects the brain’s hemispheres. He cites UCLA professor James Catterall, who says that playing music can improve spatial reasoning skills, mathematics and language.
My younger son has grown up in the Santa Monica-Malibu School District, and was lucky enough to experience what conductor David Robertson describes as the finest public school music program in the entire United States. He learned to play the recorder in elementary school, then the flute. He sang in the choir in middle school. And he’s performed in musicals in high school, and is again joining the choir next year. As a result of all this, he can sight-read musical notation, and has a huge appreciation for a wide range of music — from rock to hip hop to jazz to classical. But he is also very strong academically, with excellent math, science and language skills. And so are many, many of his peers.
The District hosts an annual musical event called Stairway of the Stars. It’s been renowned for decades and sells out every year. Over 1,000 student singers and musicians fill the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and create an evening of auditory magic. It’s an astonishing experience.
But now this incredible music program is threatened. Because budgets are being slashed, and, as usual, the arts are on the chopping block.
Fortunately, the City is trying to pass a local ballot measure that charges property owners $198 per parcel to make up for the shortfall and help save the program. It might pass. It might not.
If it doesn’t, the losers will be many: students (especially elementary students), teachers and parents. But perhaps the biggest losers will be the community itself and, in the longer run, our whole society.
Because Santa Monica is not unique in its struggle. All across the U.S., the arts are viewed as expendable. And without them, we risk churning out millions of further deadened minds, functioning below their potential —creating one more reason that Americans are slowly losing the smart jobs to societies where education is valued. And music is, too.