11/16/2011 06:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

Create the State -- The Multi-faceted Role of the Arts in Education Reform

To ensure each student reaches his or her full potential by broadening California's educational vision, policy, and practices to promote innovation, economic development, and creativity.

This is the driving purpose put forth by the National Endowment for the Arts' (NEA) California Education Leaders Institute (ELI) team at a recent convening of arts leaders launching a state-wide initiative for education reform, Create the State. In the introduction to an inspiring slate of presenters, California Arts Commission Chair, Malissa Feruzzi Shriver, noted that now is a pivotal time for arts education as more policy-makers are turning their attention to the importance of cultivating creativity and innovation in our next generation of entrepreneurs. In the flurry of education legislation in the last year, the arts education advocacy buzz words have included, "creative economy," "innovation," and "creative capacity." As a field, we've rallied around the critical role of the arts in educating students for jobs and technologies that don't even exist yet.

Yes! I am most definitely on board with teaching kids to be creative, and before this convening I may have just stopped at that. But there was even more to this conversation. We weren't just reviewing the avalanche of research and discourse on creative entrepreneurship. We were reminded that a healthy, economically and otherwise robust society is supported by a profile of positive traits associated with engagement in the arts, including empathy and self-efficacy as well as creativity. This reminder, along with one of the those stop-and-think ordinary life moments I've gotten into the habit of sharing in this blog, got me wondering a couple of things. First, are we losing sight of other critical benefits of engaging in the arts by focusing so much on economic gain? Also, are those things we may be losing site of just as critical in defining our National identity? Here's the ordinary moment...

At the start of the school year, I received a note home from my fifth grader's school. I had to put together a "disaster kit" for her. Among other things to include (canned tuna, a mylar blanket, band-aids) parents are encouraged to write a reassuring letter to their child in the event of a catastrophe. I sat, stumped, in front of a blank page and mulled over all the unthinkable scenarios that would keep me from my child. I agonized over the right words to say that would be comforting and fortifying. I was coming to the conclusion that there really are no adequate words when I noticed a picture my daughter had drawn of our whole family at the beach on the refrigerator. I turned her drawing over and wrote on the back:

If you are reading this instead of seeing me plow through the rubble in the Prius, you are an orphan. Buck up.
Love, Mommy

At this point, it may not seem like this piece is going in the direction of cultivating empathy (though I might have promoting self-efficacy wrapped up) but hang in there for a little more back story. My daughter has been a P.S. ARTS student since second grade, and her drawing is a reminder that she carries the idea of us together and safe even when we're not there. She has learned that she can materialize abstract and complex ideas through art. She has also grown up in a family of artists and gotten used to showing, not telling, through drawings, songs and dances. I know she will read between the lines of my note, look more deeply, and know that I want her to laugh instead of being afraid. I know my irreverent note on the back of her earnest drawing is the perfect representation of our family's humor, optimism and bond -- a far better representation than whatever statement I could have come up with to write -- as well as her own enduring strength in the event she needs it. I'm not saying it's the approach to take with every kid, but it was right for my budding artist. And while I personally needed to find some levity in the act of preparing for the worst, I also felt the global weight and need for better ways to express the unspeakable as the 9/11 ten-year anniversary tributes played in the background that week.

I cried a lot that week, I'm sure along with millions of Americans, and now two months later -- ten years and two months later -- I am only starting to process the collective tragedy. Listening to the family members, seeing the memorials in Boston and New York, and, more than anything, looking at the images and hearing the poems created by children most intensely affected by the attack, I was struck once again by the power of the arts to express our humanity beyond what words can say. It is sharing the art inspired from that day that will continue to help us heal as a nation. It is the art that shows our resilience and captures the depth of the trauma and triumph we experienced. It is the art that will help our children and future generations understand, in a far more profound way than by reading about it in a textbook, the enormity of the historical event.

For the science-driven amongst us, I encourage reading a recent paper on the neuroscience of art and empathy by Create the State convening presenter and prominent researcher dedicated to understanding human creativity, Dr. James Catterall (2011). In it, he presents evidence from a twelve-year longitudinal study supporting the relationship between art and increased pro-social behaviors, such as voluntarism and political engagement, and argues for both a developmental and neurological connection between participation in the arts and empathy.

The visual and performing arts involve representations of human circumstances that convey much of what day to day experience brings -- and often involving extremes of emotion -- with ample opportunity for observers, players, and the artists themselves to engage in self and other understandings.

That same weekend I put together the disaster kit, P.S. ARTS staff led children and families attending the Creative Artists Agency Foundation's 9/11 Day of Service in making a tribute piece in the style of contemporary artist, Jasper Johns. Participating in something that was both restorative and beautiful provided a forum for talking with students about how we can all contribute to honoring our fallen heroes and healing our nation. Children need the arts not only so that the can someday contribute to a thriving economy, but so they can understand at a core level why it is crucial that our society continue to thrive in the first place. They need the arts to deeply comprehend the significance of the events that shape our worldviews. The arts promote a strong sense of purpose, compassion, civic engagement, and cultural pride, and without arts in schools, teachers are at a deficit in helping children reach, as the California ELI team put so succinctly, their full potential.