My eyes keep going back to the refrigerator door as I think about arts education in San Diego schools.
As the parent of a school-age child, that's where I see the most tangible evidence of it. There, and on the walls where several favorite visual creations of my daughter hang: the school of fish swimming past a smiling octopus, the clown with pink cheeks and google eyes; the critter with the name LUE sprawled across its chest.
The elements in these artworks relate to one another, color is used in interesting combinations and they are fun to look at.
They are all also 2 years old--an eternity ago in the life of a 9-year-old. My daughter has not, in the past two years, created artwork with the same clarity and spirit that she did in the second grade.
That was when she last had art education.
That year, her school was among those benefiting from the privately funded Young at Art program, in which practicing artists go into schools to teach children about art. My daughter and her classmates learned how to use color in new ways, to create sculptures from everyday objects. They learned how art can tell stories and send messages. Most importantly, they learned how to channel their creativity and how good it feels to create something beautiful.
Those are things I want my child to learn, just as I want her to learn about math and science and history.
But, although the teaching of those fact-oriented subjects is a prescribed part of education in our schools, art education is not. It is a catch-as-catch-can proposition, often dependent on the efforts of volunteers and private donations.
This fall, my daughter and her classmates are "catching" some music education.
They are spending one class period per week learning to read music and play simple tunes on the flutophone, a plastic instrument costing $2.50. Even though the program is a short-term one, it is--as the earlier visual arts program was--exciting for the kids.
Most classroom teachers incorporate the arts into the school day as best they can. Some teachers care enough about the subject matter to commit the extraordinary effort needed to mount classroom plays or other special productions.
But, in many classrooms, time with the arts often comes after everything else is done--sometimes it's used as a reward for completing other work. (It seldom goes the other way. You just don't hear about teachers promising students that, if they complete their art projects by 2 o'clock, they can have 20 minutes to spend on math.)
"Letting" kids draw--or make music or dance or act--is like "letting" them read. There is an innate merit in it, but, without guidance, there is little growth. What they gain in reading comic books is much different from what they gain from reading classics and talking about them. Twenty minutes of coloring after math doesn't teach them how to illustrate an idea or bring dimension to an image.
As the newspaper's recent series of articles about art education in San Diego public schools documented, the arts have been pushed to the bottom of the list of what our children will learn in school. It is almost as if children's natural love for these subjects is used by policy makers as reason not to teach them about art, music, drama and dance.
It is not that the other subjects on the list have less merit, but that the list is too short and weighted too heavily in one direction. Without reinforcement and use, the positive impact of exposure to the arts fades.
The thought processes they provoke don't have a chance--along with the logic of math and science--to become a way of thinking.
Children need balance to weather life's ups and downs--and they need balance in what they learn in school.
The engineers who will solve problems of coastal pollution and erosion need also to be sensitive to the beauty of a Torrey pine against the blue sky.
To limit children's exposure to subjects that nurture their creative spirit and help them enjoy the things of beauty in life, is to educate them poorly.