The Seven Teen Quartet at Goshen Middle School

This article, Art Makes You Smarter, reminds me of the questions being asked of various disciplines in schools and colleges these days: Why do you think your subject is worth studying?  If it doesn’t directly lead to desired academic and vocational outcomes, how does it indirectly support those aims?  In public school settings the “specials” such as music, art and physical education increasingly need to justify their existence, and are the first cut when budgets are tight.

It is therefore good to see the mounting evidence that art makes you smarter, though too often we forget its other value. I readily fall into this myself, telling the prospective music college student who wants to be a doctor that med schools love undergraduate music majors, or preaching to my daughter that piano is a part of her education because of what it does her for mental acuity, and for how it develops good discipline and fine motor skills.  I believe in these rationales, but I wish it was enough to say, or that at least I would remember to also say, “Because it will bring you great joy and because the world needs art.”

Two recent conversations reinforced this wish.  A few weeks ago my daughter Greta was describing the experience of sight-reading through a new piece with her 60-member 8th grade orchestra.  It was an exciting work with a rich sound and perpetually moving parts, and the reading of it for the first time felt both dangerous and thrilling as they rallied on, determined not to fall apart. When they made it to the end, the silence of the room felt amplified. “It was so satisfying.  It was like we all took a big sigh together when we were done and just wanted to stay in that moment.”

My other daughter, Naomi, is in 5th grade and part of a traveling soccer team. The spring season recently started and I wondered how she would handle the additional demands on her time. One evening practice fell during a cold and damp day and I assumed it would be drudgery. But on our way home from the field, she said with a sweaty glow, “Mom, I am exhilarated right now. It feels so good to move.”

This is why we do this.  Yes, kids should have more recess and physical education at school because it will help them learn better. Yes, there should be more arts exposure and experience because of the great academic outcomes. Yes, in today’s world it’s naive to think we won’t need to defend our place in the educational system with proven outcomes.  But more than this and beyond this, we need movement and we need the arts because they uniquely satisfy and exhilarate something within us. This is enough.