True confession: Now that we are in the whirlwind of the school year, I¡¯m having a hard time not giving in to the temptation of salacious clickbait on all things education-related. Social media seems to be clogged with quasi-research about the virtues of Scandinavian pedagogy, the latest trends in getting kids active so they don¡¯t turn into inert blobs doing mindless worksheets and alarmist-think pieces bemoaning the slashing of arts budgets in schools across the U.S.
I could take the next few paragraphs to write about the importance of art education, citing research on the ways playing an instrument increases kids’ IQs, or how painting augments their understanding of spacial relationships. I could go on and on about these things, but there are scores of other, better-informed writers who have already expounded upon such research and arguments. But here’s my argument: None of these byproducts of art education even matter—exposing kids to great music and visual arts is a worthy objective in and of itself.
It’s not prestigious research on academic outcomes that should encourage us parents to incorporate arts into our little ones’ education. Because art is about more than the opportunity to create something new or appreciating great works by the masters. What’s even more valuable are the bridges art helps us build with others.
Throughout human history, artistic expression has given people a common language to share our feelings, our hopes, our fears. One of my favorite memories from grad school is a trip I took to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow while I was a fellow at a Russian university. I wandered the gallery with one of my Russian pals, neither of us fluent in the other’s language. Despite the language barrier, and the stark cultural gaps that divided our world views, we were both moved by the timeless beauty of paintings and sculptures that spoke to the deeper parts of our psyches—the core of our humanity that neither politics or geography can splinter.
Every day during this contentious election cycle, I’ve felt more and more divided from friends and neighbors who hold viewpoints different from my own. And it¡¯s not just here in the U.S. that things are feeling fractured. There are some big, scary things going on around the world that challenge us as parents to find age-appropriate ways to talk to our kids. And it’s more important than ever to teach our children to find common ground with folks that think, act and look differently than they do. Art gives our kids an outlet to express some of the fears and uncertainty they may not be able to articulate with words, and gives us the opportunity to teach our kids that people have more that connects us than divides us.
Baltimore is bursting with art. We are home to the incomparable Walters Art Museum, the eccentric (but always delightful) American Visionary Art Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art and festivals like Artscape and Little Italy’s Madonnari Arts Festival. This on top of the renowned Baltimore School for the Arts and Maryland Institute College of Art. Without leaving the city limits, our children can experience a breathtaking world that expands their imaginations and challenges them to dream big.
Enjoying art with our kids can be more than just admiring others’ work. Creating together through paint, collage and sculpture gives us time to be hands on and work together to bring a vision to life. Connecting with our kids through art gives us a chance to share ourselves with them. So much of parenting is centered around drawing out our children’s personalities—their likes and dislikes—without having to share the vulnerable, deeper parts of ourselves. But we are our children’s greatest teachers, and using art to show them who we are at our core can help them become brave about sharing their authentic selves with others.
I’m hard pressed to think of any facts I learned in elementary school that come in handy on a daily basis. Shockingly, knowing that one-fifth of Italy is comprised of islands has yet to impress my colleagues. The lessons from school that have endured are about character, friendship, acceptance, compassion. Building these skills can only happen through activities that connect us to one another, that challenge us to see the value in others and in ourselves. Whether it’s leaning over a shared painting or staring in wonder at a timeless masterpiece on a class trip, art helps our kids tap into the best of themselves and see the best in others, creating a more beautiful world as they learn together.
Elizabeth Mount is executive director for the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.