Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Arts + Kids = Scientists

This special guest blogpost was written by Impact Theatre Artistic Director Melissa Hillman. Learn more about Impact Theatre at http://www.impacttheatre.com.

When I was in grad school at Cal, I taught a number of undergrad intro courses. I taught DA10, DA1A, and DA1B, which were intro courses for acting and dramatic lit, and they drew a large number of non-majors. I learned two things very quickly teaching at Cal: If you think it’s plagiarized, it is (thank you, Google!) and disproportionate numbers of science majors take theatre courses.

I was struck over and over by how many science majors there were stuffed into these acting and dramatic lit classes. I had expected crossover from other arts and from English, but in each and every class I taught at Cal, science majors outnumbered English and arts majors. What was going on?

A new article from the Psychology Today blog might provide some insight. It turns out that scientists are built out of arts education. Provide a kid with music or theatre in elementary school, and out comes a physicist in college.

Is it really that simple? Possibly. The study outlined in the article “Artsmarts: Why Cutting Arts Funding Is Not a Good Idea,” demonstrates that science graduates are three to eight times as likely to have had arts education as the general population. When looking at science innovators (as defined by number of patents held and companies created), the likelihood of an arts education background is even higher.

I know many of you will remind me that I get up in people’s grills on the regular about correlativity not being the same as causality, but in this case, it does seem as if there’s a hard case shaping up for causality. After the famous “Mozart Effect” study of the 90s, dozens of studies about the impact arts education has on children’s brains, cognition, intelligence, and academic performance have been done, and they almost all point to some benefit. And while many are labeled by detractors as “inconclusive” or showing only correlativity, when taken as a whole, these many different studies done in many different ways do indeed point to a high probability of direct benefit.

Whether we like it or not, it appears that we’re all participants in a very wide-scale study at present. Budget cuts (and our hyperfocus on the high-stakes testing we use as nothing but a stick with which to beat teachers) have decimated arts education in most US schools. Conversely, four out of the five highest-performing nations in reading, math, and science—South Korea, Finland, New Zealand, and Japan—all fund arts education and require it in schools in some way. China does as well. Will our science graduates be competitive in 20 years? Will we still be world leaders in science innovation in 30?

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