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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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Investing in Visual Arts is Investing in Youth

The origins of practicing visual arts trace back to nearly every prehistoric culture as far as 36,000 years (Walter, para 4&9). Through the perception of art, humans are able to discover the history of the human race, and the origins of expression and communication. If our ancestors had not used art to express themselves, much of the information we have compiled about the origins of geography, history, astronomy, language, sciences and arts would remain unknown today (Walter, para 9). Although the importance of art has been made clear through numerous examples, the funding of visual arts in North American secondary schools is certainly not reflective of the abundant benefits of visual arts. In fact, there was a 5% reduction in visual arts teachers between 1998 and 2004 (qtd. in Schmidt, para 10). Thus, the decrease in teaching staff across North America has resulted in a substantial decrease of the availability of art classes. As a result, the practice of art is becoming less prevalent among students. The decrease in funding of visual arts departments is deplorable given the countless benefits of practicing art. Thus, visual arts funding should be increased in North American secondary schools as the regular practice of art has been linked to various health, social and economic benefits.

The practice of  visual arts has been proven beneficial to human health. Many health benefits are seen such as the improvement of brain plasticity and neural functioning; assistance in managing asthma, depression or anxiety; and improvement in the cognitive development of

empathy. Firstly, it is noted that brain plasticity and neural functioning are benefitted through the regular practice of art (Schlegel et al., para 1). This is due to the creative nature of visual arts and the manner in which art promotes the unique ability to think in new and creative ways. Although the creative process is not fully understood by scientists, as creativity is able to be displayed through an infinite number of expressions, many studies demonstrate the direct of impact creative expression on the reorganization of prefrontal white matter of the brain and its plasticity (Schlegel, et al., para 1).  Prefrontal white matter conducts neural impulses (Schlegel et al., para 49) and significantly affects complex cognitive behaviour such as long term planning (Miller et al., 1124), imagining events (Addis et al., 1363), creativity and learning (Jung, Rex. E. et al., para 1). Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to reorganize itself, through synthesizing new neurons (Schlegel et al., para 13).  Thus, it is obvious that prefrontal white matter is necessary for creative functioning, as well as other crucial cognitive functions (Schlegel et al., para 1).

Another benefit of increasing the funding of visual arts, and thus, encouraging its practice, is that it would assist students struggling with asthma, anxiety or depression, by increasing their quality of life and life expectancy (Beebe et al., para 17).  In a case study it was concluded that children with asthma who underwent art therapy reported to have lower anxiety, improved problem solving skills, and a higher life expectancy (Beebe et al., para 17). It is also proven that art reduces anxiety in those students who are diagnosed with chronic illnesses and also healthy students who struggle with the universal stressors of being a student (Beebe et al., para 3). Decreased stress levels assists them in excelling in their classes by successfully coping with life stressors and it increases their life expectancy, as the decrease of stress reduces the risk of developing numerous illnesses (Beebe et al., para 18).

 Lastly, it is noticed that practicing art is proven to enhance students’ empathetic development (Zazulak, Joyce et al., 69). In a study, science students at McMaster University underwent four sessions where they learned about various elements of arts (Zazulak, Joyce et al., 69).  After learning the individual topics in arts, students were required to apply the skills they acquired (Zazulak, Joyce et al., 69). Through the study, it was determined that practicing visual arts regularly significantly improved cognitive aspects of empathy (Zazulak, Joyce et al., 69). Zazulak et al. defines cognitive empathy to be, “one\'s ability to identify and understand the experience of others via his/her intellect” (69). The improvement in empathy among these students after practicing art is a significant finding as empathy is a vital universal emotion that young children, high school students, as well as adults must experience. The practice of empathy influences students to be kind and understanding towards one another, which is crucial in order to create a safe, comforting and connected environment for learning in schools. A lack of empathy towards one’s peers is the root cause of all forms of bullying.  Since increased accessibility to visual arts classes allows for students to feel empathy towards one another, then having safe schools is certainly worth the investment. Thus, student involvement in visual art classes has numerous health benefits such as improved neural functioning and brain plasticity, decreased anxiety amongst ill and healthy students and improved cognitive aspects of empathy.

Many social benefits are seen through investing in visual arts departments. A few advantages include increased social skills of students, connections made with peers and community members, and the decreased dropout rate. Research has demonstrated that students who used used materials for building objects a few times a week had stronger and increasingly developed social skills in comparison to those students who did not routinely build objects (qtd. in Menzer, 8). The development of social skills is fundamental for students to interact with one another and build relationships, to prepare them for interactions outside of secondary school, and to act as a foundation for the development of further social skills throughout the rest of their life. As previously mentioned, art classes provide students the opportunity to bond with their peers.  With increased funding, schools will be able to accommodate a greater number of art classes. As a result, a greater number of students will be given the opportunity to bond with others that have similar interests or with students whom they may not have connected with otherwise. Many art students find lasting friendships and opportunities through art classes.  For example, numerous secondary school art students become engaged in community art projects, assisting in teaching local art classes, and connecting with local businesses who are interested in displaying or selling art.  Visual arts teacher of Renfrew District School Board, Natalie Stevens, says, “Timid students who had previously felt isolated from the intimidating high school social order have found friends and comfort through the art program and through collaborations of many group projects”.  

Art students are also given the opportunity to be involved in their school and be recognized for their talents and hard work. In addition, art classes encourage students to remain in school, and thus  significantly reduce the dropout rates of secondary students. Arts participation requires performance with peers which builds ties between a student and their peers and school, which creates a sense of belonging for the student, and encourages them to attend classes regularly (Bridgeland et al., iv,v ). Nearly half of high school dropouts report the reason they dropped out was because their classes were boring (Bridgeland et al., iii). However, it has been found that the participation of art gages the interest of many students and significantly decreases the number of students that drop out of secondary schools (Thomas, Kathleen M. et al., 328). Davis, founder of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discusses that encouraging students to take part in art courses decreases dropouts by enabling students to succeed, as in art classes various ideas are appreciated and individualism is celebrated (qtd. in Thomas, Kathleen M. et al., 328). Art instructors such as Richard Deasy even note that students who drop out of school or are expelled, may sneak back to attend art classes (qtd. in Schmidt, para 5). The behaviour of at risk students clearly demonstrates that the prevalence of art courses has the potential to cause a significant decrease in the rate of dropouts seen among young teens. As a result, many social benefits are seen by means of the practice of art, which demonstrate why visual arts funding should be increased such as increasing students’ social skills, allowing students to build relationships with peers and community members and significantly decreasing the number of secondary school dropouts by gaging their interest through the study of arts.

The benefits of an increase in the funding of visual arts are also noted in economic settings through the increase in demand of creative employees, through the exposure with a potential field of employment, and through the positive effect of arts and culture on the economy.  Firstly, it is noted that employers are placing a higher importance in hiring employees who are creative and are able to think innovatively. Folger and Senra, professor and assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan note that, “To meet … challenges, employers are placing a greater importance on hiring graduates with developed skills in … creative thinking and problem solving. Consequently, universities need to focus on ways to better develop these skills in students…” (9). It is evident that creativity is applicable in various occupations and many standout employees are innovators that bring new and creative ideas to their field. It is also known that creativity is valued not only in the arts but sciences as well due to the fact that chemical engineering professors are discussing the importance of creativity in the passage mentioned. Thus, the development of creativity through visual arts is a universal skill that should be instilled in students of every field of study in order to maximize their potential and encourage them to be an asset to their employers (Schlegel et al., para 1). Moreover, an increasing of visual arts funding allows students to be exposed to a potential career option.  Students are able to discover a passion they may have which will lead them to make a career choice which suits their interests. It also allows students to note if they feel that they are successful in being given a great amount of creative coursework or if they enjoy more structured subjects such as maths or sciences.  

A final economic benefit of incorporating more art classes in secondary schools is the positive effect on the community the prevalence of art classes has. It is noticeable that in communities where arts and culture flourish, the economy also develops. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives states, “The quality of a community’s cultural infrastructure also has a direct impact on quality of life and therefore on the competitiveness of communities in attracting people and investment” (2). Thus, it is evident that if investing in visual arts is given a higher priority, there will be significant community growth which leads to local businesses flourishing, the employment of local residents and the growth of tourism (National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, 4). In order for arts to flourish it is evident that youth should be exposed to the arts from a young age and have the opportunity to develop their skills in the field to become art professionals and positively influence the economy. Therefore, it is evident that the increase of visual arts funding, which will result in a greater number of art classes run in secondary schools, allows for many economic benefits such as the development of creativity which allows students to excel in the workplace, the exposure students have with a potential field of employment and the positive impact art has on the economy by attracting tourism and investment.

A general argument made against increasing art funds is that “only a handful of students are artistic, so the increase in funding of visual arts would not support the whole student population”.  However, visual arts is to mental health what exercise is to the body.  It is common knowledge that even if someone is not an extraordinary athlete, exercise is required to maintain their health. Likewise, practicing creativity through visual arts constantly utilizes neural pathways and sustains mental health in order to keep one healthy. Some may also say that the art is not as ‘important’ as math or science; however, the arts have been proven to be academically beneficial. In fact, it has been proven that students who had art rich experiences in high school were three times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree, were five times more likely to graduate from high school, were more likely to enroll in a competitive college and earn a higher overall average in high school and university as well as a higher GPA in math courses compared to students who earned little or no art credits  (Catterall, Dumais, & Hampden-Thomas, 12-16). Thus, it is generally unreasonable to claim that the funding of art is not beneficial to the entire student population and that the participation in the field of visual art brings no academic benefits as the practice of art clearly benefits all students’ mental health and allows them to excel in academics.

To conclude, the funding increase in the field of visual arts will positively affect students’ health through improved neural functioning, decreased anxiety and an increase in the cognitive aspects of empathy. It will also benefit students’ social skills through building relationships with peers and community members, and decreasing the dropout rates. Furthermore, the funding increase will improve the economy through building students’ creative skills which prepares them for the workplace, by allowing students to be exposed to the possibility of being employed in the arts and thus encouraging arts to flourish in their community which positively affects the economy. Art has endless benefits which allows humans to feel and express their emotions while exercising neural pathways, creating long lasting relationships with others and propelling the economy towards success.  Secondary students are becoming deprived of the innumerable positive aspects of the arts and the rapid decline of visual arts educators will certainly be noticed through higher stress levels in teens, increased secondary school dropouts and a decrease in visual arts practitioners.  Thus, it is integral to increase visual arts funding to invest in youth and allow the future to have endless creative capacities.

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