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Kristen Paglia

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Kids Do More With Arts Education: Closing the Achievement Gap By Increasing Social Assets

Posted: 04/ 4/11 05:12 PM ET

The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners... but having the same manner for all human souls. In short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.

Professor Henry Higgins says this to Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play, Pygmalion. He has wagered that he can pass Eliza, a "lowly" flower girl, for a society lady by teaching her how to speak and behave properly. Higgins is successful, Eliza does pass, but her acceptance into the social elite came as much from her newly found self-esteem, as her style and manner.

The idea that "social assets" can help kids get ahead and do more in the world isn't a new one. Social assets aren't about money, but the stuff that comes with money. Things like knowing about fine art, current events, fashion, design, even food and wine. These are the social markers that give away what part of town you live in, where you go to school, and what your parents do for a living. In the last forty years the concept of social assets has been widely recognized in educational research as a major factor in where, or if, kids go to college, and how much they'll earn over their lifetimes.

In the past few weeks, as our nonprofit has been gearing up for the annual Los Angeles Antiques Show benefit gala on April 13, the importance of imparting social assets on children has been forefront in my mind. At first glance, there seems to be a wide chasm between a high-profile fundraiser hosting distinguished guests and collectors, and the underserved schools we are raising money for, but there is an important connection, and an opportunity that we can transform into action. Teaching children to appreciate, celebrate and feel deserving of beautiful surroundings and VIP treatment is critical to their success. Dedication to artful living, to the idea that your school, community, body and psyche are valuable and should be cared for, can make all the difference in a child's future.

Around the office, I've been referring to this connection between the good life and our mission to improve the lives of children through arts education as the "Do More" project. The name evolved out of a dinner conversation with friends about our own kids, self-fulfilling prophecies, and the intersection between the design industry and public education, yada, yada, yada. Get it? Instead of Doolittle, kids can do more. Okay, there was some wine involved. Still, it occurred to us that these things we consider social assets are sometimes pushed aside by the pragmatic, essentials-only, education and service communities. But failing to provide our children with the type of knowledge and experience they need to compete for shrinking higher education and professional opportunities will only increase the achievement gap between classes. Research shows this is particularly true for our most vulnerable kids, who face economic, cultural, or cognitive-behavioral challenges.

The Do More project is a call to action for fine artists, musicians, actors, dancers, designers, architects, chefs, writers, poets and anyone who is lucky enough to to know and enjoy the arts and finer things in life, to find new ways of promoting social assets in underserved schools and communities. This could be anything from offering up design consultation services to transform a bleak classroom space, to hosting a formal dance for a group of special needs students, to hanging and curating a gallery show in a town without a museum.

Bill Strickland, a poor kid from Pittsburgh turned president and CEO of multi-million dollar service organization, Manchester Craftman's Guild, is dedicated to inspiring inner-city youth through the arts. He speaks to the importance of increasing kids' social assets by describing why we decided to become an artist.

It felt better hanging out with the classy art teacher than being on the streets... I didn't think of being an artist, I just wanted to be a cool guy who dressed nice, had a good-looking wife and a great house.

It's those who have had arts and culture education that make the best case for the equalizing power of the arts. Even in elementary school, they feel comfortable in museums, concert halls and art studios. They consider themselves artists. They are empowered to share their aesthetic impressions and critical perspective, to speak their minds without the shame that comes from being on the outside looking in. In their words...

A fourth grader on a production of Peter and the Wolf at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, "I learned you can tell the same story in different ways. I think all kids should be able to see the symphony."

A first grader on the Getty Museum, "It had gardens! Beautiful gardens, with sculptures in them. Sculptures that make you want to run. And then look. And then run!"

A class of second graders in rural Central California who have never been to a museum sit rapt watching the Bakersfield Museum of Art mobile museum program. One little girl bubbles over, "This is the first time I saw real art. I like it. I like art."

And, Ms. Eliza Doolittle herself, remarks on the most important lesson she learned through arts and culture education...

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.

If we can teach our children anything, let's teach them that.