Why Art Matters in Education, Public Life, and Democracy

Art, in is broadest sense, matters in education. Art is too powerful of a force to be excluded from learning because it is everywhere in culture and public life. Art is influencing, moving, conjuring, provoking, inspiring, challenging, and shaping. The question is whether art will be an authoritarian or democratizing force in society. Will art be limited to a few influential people? Will its secrets be hidden from the majority? Or, will we nurture of people who are informed about its power, how it works, its role in our lives and communities?

Art reflects culture and shapes culture. As such, artists, those who partner with artists, and those who learn to use the tools of the artist wield an incredible power in a modern republic like the United States. Their words, images, music, stories, metaphors, and themes flow into the imaginations of people with whom they encounter. Sometimes this solidifies what is already present. In other cases it is redirects minds and hearts.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Even when one lacks a nuanced understanding of the art or medium, it already starts working on us. It awakens emotions about topics that were previously paired with completely different emotions. It provides lenses that give us new perspectives on an issue or even ourselves. Depending upon the lens, it might give us a macro view, zoom in on a nuanced detail, or change our perspective with a new shade or color.

Consider how art and its countless manifestations play a role in public and political life. These are not small matters. Art does not shy away from the provocative, candid, volatile, vile, or virtuous. It doesn’t play by cocktail party rules of no talk about politics and religion. It goes where it wills, says what it wills, and invites anyone listening, reading, viewing, or watching to join in the conversation.

This is why art belongs in education. If what I write about art is true, then learning to be a creator of art is a means of engaging in public life. It is part of engaged citizenship in a modern democracy. Avoiding it risks leaving people as consumers of art but not as creators. They are shaped by art but do not understand how or why. Art can, too easily, be turned into manipulation or propaganda, leading people where they do not want to go, but convincing them that the journey is their destiny.

In contemporary conversations about the role of the liberal arts in education, this is an important point for our consideration. Education (informal and formal) is opportunity to prepare for jobs, but it is also a chance to cultivate aesthetic and intellectual habits and ways of thinking that have relevance to engaged citizenry. If we ignore or dismiss such arguments, I fear that we will be incredibly successful at producing highly employable sheep who can and will be led by any self-proclaimed shepherd.

That is a dangerous prospect for individual agency but also for a democratic republic. If we are to empower people to think for themselves and believe that their voices and actions matter, then art matters. If we believe that a free nation consists of a people where every voice and life matters and is worthy of influence in the public sphere, then art matters.

I’m not convinced that most liberal arts curricula in formal education necessarily do a good job addressing this fact, but the topic remains important. We can teach poetry, art, creative writing, film-making, music theory, photography, and graphic design to people but still fail to prepare them for a world filled with such things. We must improve at exploring why these matter, how they are infused in our culture, how they work on us, the many ethical considerations related to them, and how we can refine our ability to communicate, create, and express in these ways. We can examine the role of art in the public life and its incredible power. In doing so, we can equip people to speak and understand the many languages of art that shape and reflect ourselves, our communities, and our society.