The following article appeared in Cairo West December 2016
As the academic year kicks into high gear and exams creep ever closer, parents all over the country are encouraging their children to get down to some serious study, work hard in school and do their homework. Many are investing in extra tuition to nail those important subjects, like maths and English and science. The pressure is on to grab those A*’s and then later, get a place at a good university. But what of the other subjects on the curriculum, like art and music, and in some places, drama, and dance, which help to develop a student’s imagination and creative abilities? Too often, these subjects tend to be given little importance, and are marginalised at the expense of those that will lead directly into a career. After all, why would a prospective engineer or doctor, need to know how to draw a vase of flowers?
Albert Einstein, the world’s greatest theoretical physicist said “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” He was stating a fact that all true educationalists understand as a given: that learning and practicing the principles of art is absolutely vital to the development of critical thinking. And critical thinking not only applies to scientists, it extends to all areas of academia, whether it be maths, information technology, history or geography. A*’s will get a child into university, and maybe one day they’ll be at the top of their particular profession. But will they stand out and be the Einstein of their field? Probably not. Thinking outside the box is vital, and that is a skill that art, more than any other subject, provides.
The ability to see the world in a different way, to think around a problem and view it from a different angle, takes imagination and is the cornerstone of success in all subjects. And the more advanced the level of study, the more important the skill becomes. It’s a skill that arts educationalists can rightly claim as their own. Nowhere else in the curriculum, is it taught so comprehensively and with such a powerful focus on the real world. Imagination is where all human success springs from. Imagination is, let’s be blunt about this; the womb of critical thinking.
Art lessons play an important role in nurturing young minds and developing their creative and imaginative abilities, and this spills over into non-art related subjects. A comprehensive study by James Catterall, professor of education at the University of California in Los Angeles, reported that students who had more involvement in the arts scored better in standardised tests. Catterall said:
“While education in the arts is no magic bullet for what ails many schools, the arts warrant a place in the curriculum because of their intimate ties to most everything we want for our children and schools.”
If parents are worried about the academic success of their children, then more art is needed, not less. It has been widely reported that involvement in the arts can lead to gains in maths, reading, verbal skills, critical thinking, cognitive ability, motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. According to ‘Americans for the Arts’ children are four times more likely to get noted for academic success, when they participate regularly in art activities.
In the area of language development, the practice of art for younger children provides opportunities for them to talk about their work, learning the words for different colours, shapes, and the motor skills employed. They learn to use descriptive words to discuss their work and talk about their feelings in relation to their work and the work of others.
The development of motor skills is also enhanced through an engagement with art. Holding a paintbrush, using scissors and scribbling with a crayon help with the growth of the finer motor skills that are needed at a later stage of development. Art engagement helps develop the dexterity needed for writing.
In a world filled with smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions and other technological gadgets, visual literacy is more important than ever. Drawing, painting, making things from clay or sticking beads onto a collage contribute substantially to the development of visual literacy.
According to Dr Kerry Freedman, Head of Art and Design Education at Northern Illinois University: “Parents need to be aware that children learn a lot more from graphic sources now than in the past. Children need to know more about the world than just what they can learn through text and numbers. Art education teaches students how to interpret, criticize, and use visual information, and how to make choices based on it.”
The world that children are moving into, is one filled with visual stimuli of all kinds: marketing logos, advertising hoardings, and other graphic symbols, delivered through a variety of media, and at an ever-increasing pace. Having a developed sense of visual literacy helps children and young adults navigate this world, and become smart consumers and producers.
“The kind of people society needs to make it move forward are thinking, inventive people who seek new ways and improvements, not people who can only follow directions. Art is a way to encourage the process and the experience of thinking and making things better!” says MaryAnn Kohl, an arts educator and author of numerous books about art education. By encouraging children to express themselves and to make things that previously hadn’t existed in the world, they start to develop a sense of innovation and inventiveness that will be necessary skills in their adult lives.
Allied to the ability to understand the society that exists around us, is cultural awareness. We are constantly bombarded with images from around the world, and we read the world according to our understandings of it. That understanding is framed against our own culture, which we buy into based on social values and the influence of our parents, relatives, friends and colleagues, amongst other things. Through the study of art, we can start to contextualise other cultures and learn that what an artist or designer portrays is simply their interpretation of reality, which may be different, but equally valid, to our own. We develop an insight into other ways of being.
Art has a long and proud history in Egypt, perhaps more so than in any other country. The history of Egypt, and thus civilisation itself, going back several millennia, is told through the creative, visual expressions of generations of artists and craftsmen who highly prized their artistic abilities and creative skills. What would be left of ancient Egypt, were it not for the work of artists? Very little.
“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge… Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world,” Einstein said, and in this, he sums up the cultural urgency there is for an educational refocusing on not only visual art but the other Arts of music, dance, and drama as well.