National Assembly of State Arts Agencies CEO Jonathan Katz was invited to address the ceremony at the U.S. Department of Education on January 29, 2013, that opened the exhibit of selected student artwork produced as part of the annual National PTA–sponsored program called Reflections. "Diversity Means ..." was this year's theme.
I am delighted to celebrate the Reflections program with you. On behalf of the 56 state and territorial arts agencies of the United States, I salute the PTA for advocating arts education, and I want all of you to know that we are extremely pleased that Philip Horn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, links our networks as a member of the National PTA board.
I'm going to follow the lead of today's theme and share my perspective on what diversity means. I believe that a sincere commitment to diversity also commits us to ensuring that every child gets an education that includes the arts. Here is why.
When we think of diversity, we tend to think of the various characteristics we share with other groups. We think of our gender, our race and ethnicity, where we live, where our family came from; we think of our age, our body types, our abilities and disabilities. Our diversity links us with some people and separates us from others. We want those like us to have every opportunity to succeed, we want those like us represented when decisions are made, we want the option to celebrate with those like us in private and in public.
On the other hand, we don't want to be trapped by our diverse characteristics. We don't want to be stereotyped by those different from us, nor do we want to be limited by the expectations of those like us. At times, we want to separate ourselves from our inherited qualities, to separate ourselves from our previous choices and to re-create ourselves.
So I want to argue that, essentially, diversity means individuality.
As a poet in the schools for the Kansas Arts Commission, I learned that my young students could not distinguish between images they had seen on television a few days earlier and their own dreams. Without practicing their own imaginative language, without learning to tell stories in visual images, without learning to play an instrument, they were well on their way to becoming the spiritual captives of any picture on a screen, any message delivered in music, any image in any medium selling a product or an idea. Without learning in and through the arts, a child's individuality is at risk.
Learning the arts means learning how our senses work; how sound affects us and how we come to understand and create music; how sight affects us and how we come to understand and create visual art; how movement and drama and nature and the built environment, and smells and tastes, and artifacts of all kinds affect us; how our senses and feelings and ideas are influenced by culture; how our impulses and responses are similar to those of others; how we are different; how our feelings and ideas are strengthened or changed by sensory experience; how we can express, communicate, celebrate, reflect upon, criticize and mold our individuality.
A former U.S. commissioner of education, Ernest Boyer, wrote: "Language is, without question, central to all learning." For him, "language is defined broadly to include not just words, but also mathematics, and the arts—three symbol systems that have their own unique characteristics and, at the same time, relate intimately to each other."
The point Boyer makes is that words, numbers and sensory images are necessary for children to learn everything else. Some children's learning abilities and preferences will favor one of those symbol systems heavily. Focus on two of those languages, instead of three, and a large portion of your student body will have trouble learning any subject, trouble remaining in school. The rest of the student body will just not learn up to their potential. We must recognize that children are diverse in their abilities to learn. Limit arts learning to a single sense, push images and sensory exploration away from the central education of those who aspire to be scientists, technicians, engineers and mathematicians, and you condemn individuals to fail. You weaken the ranks of our problem solvers and make it more likely that our problems will plague us longer than they have to.
For these reasons and others, arts learning is essential to the practice of democracy. Creative writing, visual art, music and especially drama all teach empathy. The arts help us understand perception. You learn that sometimes others perceive as you do and that sometimes you are in the minority. You learn that sometimes you just won't be understood. Through an arts experience we can learn the importance of living where the minority is protected. We come to realize that all individuals—whatever majorities and minorities we inhabit at a given time—must work for that protection or it will not exist when we need it. The Greeks had it right with their logo for drama: the masks of comedy and tragedy. When we put them on, we see through the eyes of another. Empathy is what drives civil liberties. It's what motivates people to perpetuate the kind of democracy we think of as American.
Also, whatever benefits the arts provide—and on this subject reasonable people can argue—it is better to have them than not to have them. James Catterall has demonstrated in the long-term studies he summarizes in his book Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art that arts learning is "strongly connected" with the academic success, continuing education and successful employment of all students, including those challenged with low socioeconomic status. Millions of kids whose parents are not well informed or affluent, or maybe just got to this country, or for one reason or another aren't that involved in their education don't get the arts. And they won't get them unless public schools offer them as part of the basic curriculum. And that is not fair. That is not democratic. We don't institutionalize inequities in the kind of democracy we want to have. Providing all children with learning in the arts, empowering all children to learn as much as they can, is an essential part of democratic practice. Furthermore, we learn from Catterall's studies that an arts-rich curriculum is linked to behavioral outcomes such as volunteerism, involvement in the community, civic participation.
Thomas Friedman, in his new book That Used to Be Us, which is about what America has recently lost and could regain, was asked, I think by Fareed Zakariah, whether his book has a happy ending. "Yes," he said, "but I don't know whether it's fiction or nonfiction." What I have to add is my certainty that it will be fiction first if it is ever to be nonfiction. Every weapon we have invented, we have used. The future must be different from the past. Not only our leaders, but all our citizens, must receive an education that prepares them for profound acts of imagination.
You who support the Reflections program, who understand how important arts learning is for students and for a society that respects their individuality, are very important people. I thank you for the work you do, I thank you for the partnerships you foster between the PTA and state arts agencies, I thank you for challenging children, their educators and their parents to consider what diversity means, and I thank you for inviting me to join you here today.
For arranging this connection between NASAA and the National PTA, we thank NASAA board 2nd Vice President and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Executive Director Philip Horn, PTA President Betsy Landers, PTA Executive Director Eric Hargis, and PTA Director of Programs & Partnerships Mary Pat King.