"One's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions."
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
James Catterall, author of Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art, used this quote in a recent talk to educators at the Seattle Art Museum.
The chair of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies contends that studying the arts helps build neural networks and stimulates the brain to think in new ways. The result: higher academic achievement in high school and greater involvement in politics and the community as adults.
All of this forms a powerful argument for finding ways to retain arts education in the schools, even as budget cuts and a growing emphasis on traditional academics erode funding for them. And that is the point of both Catterall's new book and his appearance at SAM.
In Catterall's view, schools today are teaching to the "left brain" too much.
"The left brain is interested in what is already known, in memorizing bits, in counting and classifying; it lacks much sense of context," Catterall told the crowd of educators and parents. "The right brain is interested in the whole, in ‘what's new.' I think we need to stimulate the right brain to work in today's society of knowledge and service, rather than manufacturing. There's an argument for variety in teaching."
The subtitle to his new book is a mouthful: A 12-Year National Study of Education in the Visual and Performing Arts – Effects on the Achievements and Values of Young Adults. In this unique study, Catterall looked at 12,000 young people from across the nation, visiting them five times between ages 14 and 26. His question was: Does high involvement in the arts in middle and high school have a positive effect on students' lives as young adults?
He took a special look at 2,750 low-income learners, asking whether those who studied the arts were more likely to overcome the achievement gap, where low-income students and those of certain races don't do as well academically.
His answer to both questions is "yes."
Low-income students who had high involvement with any of the arts – including dance, theater, music or visual arts – were significantly more likely to attend post-secondary classes or to earn associate or bachelor's degrees than those who had little or no involvement. For all students, those involved in the arts in high school rated their post-secondary educational experiences more highly than those who hadn't studied the arts in high school. Not surprisingly, they also were more likely to attend museums, plays, concerts and arts-related activities and to read books and newspapers. Referring to his book's title, Catterall called these effects "Doing Well."
What about "Doing Good?" Catterall found that students, including those with low incomes, who were involved in arts in middle and high school, had higher rates of registering to vote, voting or serving as community or youth volunteers.
Catterall isn't the first to look at the relationship between the arts and academic achievement. He pointed to a study demonstrating that students who were heavily involved in music did better in math. And other studies have shown that studying music boosts reasoning skills and studying drama helps build verbal skills.
Beyond academics, though, Catterall is a proponent of arts-rich schools. He surveyed teachers, students, administrators and parents in 100 schools, and found that those in arts-rich schools had higher teacher and student morale and used more small groups and collaborative learning strategies.
He also believes that collaborative arts experiences, such as painting a mural or putting on a play, help kids develop community. "They get engaged with peers in a good way," he said.
Catterall stressed the importance of having arts education integrated into our children's classrooms at all grade levels and enrolling students in out-of-school arts experiences if the schools do not provide enough. But the job is harder in some communities.
"Kids do better in arts-rich schools," he said. "More high-income kids go to art-rich schools; there is an inequity in our society regarding arts education."
Wenda Reed is a Bothell freelance writer and frequent contributor to Seattle's Child.