GUEST: The arts are basic skills

childasartistBy NORM KNIGHT

At election time, New Jersey homeowners make a plea:  “reduce or at least stabilize my local property taxes.”

 Municipal candidates usually claim to be cost effective with a sharp eye and pencil on the local budget.    Some may even duck and refer to the community’s education budget.

So if pressure is exerted on that local school board, do we ask:  has it sufficiently contained costs, effected economies, or regionalized services? (These are the same questions you  first addressed to your  municipality.)

 Instead of these effective strategies, when faced with the need to restrain budgets, school boards are tempted to axe the arts because they are “frills.”

 Yes, the myth that arts are frills may still exist. Has the case been made how germane the arts are to the development of learning and skill acquisition that serve the individual throughout his or her life?

 Our students need:

+–to effectively internalize learning,

+–to develop life-long employability skills, and

+–to improve the quality of their lives and that of their communities.

 The arts give students access to success, their own creativity, and help in the development of self-esteem–all factors which are known to contribute to intellectual growth.

 Basic skills (reading, writing, arithmetical computation and mathematical reasoning listening, and speaking ) were the traditional functions required of schools.  But new demands of the workplace identify thinking skills and personal qualities as equally prized in a world facing economic changes.

 While basic skills are considered irreducible minimums for low-skill jobs, they do not guarantee a career or access to a college education.  Thinking skills which permit the individual to analyze, synthesize and evaluate complexity will enable individuals to master their work.   To be exact, thinking skills are:

 1. Creative Thinking. Uses imagination freely.  Combines ideas and information in new ways.  Reshapes goals for new solutions and efforts.

2.Decision Making.  Specifies goals and constraints.  Generates alternatives. Considers risks.  Evaluates and chooses best alternatives.

3. Problem Solving.  Recognizes a problem.  Identifies discrepancies.  Devises and implements solutions.  Evaluates and monitors progress.  Considers on-going modifications.

4. Visual Supplementing.  Organizes and processes symbols, pictures, graphs, objects or other information.

5. Knowing How To Learn.  Recognizes and can use learning techniques to apply new knowledge and skills in familiar and changing situations.

6. Discovers a principle underlying the relationship between two or more objects and applies it in solving a problem.

 Personal qualities are critically important to employers and in the final analysis to the quality of life we all wish to enjoy.  Schools rely on the arts and student activities to internalize such vital learnings through intellectual and emotional experiences.  Personal qualities are the very essence of the arts. They are also at the heart of rescuing our at-risk students.  To be exact, personal qualities are:


  1.  Exerts a high level of effort and perseverance towards goal attainment.  Works hard to become excellent at doing tasks by setting high standards.  Pays attention to details.  Works well in displaying a high level of concentration.  Displays high standards  of enthusiasm, vitality and optimism in approaching and completing tasks.
  2. Self-Esteem.  Believes in own self-worth and maintains a positive view of self.  Demonstrates knowledge of own skills and abilities.  Is aware of impact on others.  Knows own emotional capacity and needs and how to address them.
  3.  Demonstrates understanding, friendliness, adaptability, empathy and politeness in group settings.
  4. Self-Management.  Assesses own knowledge, skills and abilities accurately.  Sets well-defined and realistic personal goals.  Monitors progress toward goal attainment.  Motivates self through goal achievement.  Exhibits self-control.  Responds to feedback unemotionally and non-defensively.  Is a self-starter.
  5. Integrity/Honesty.  Can be trusted.  Recognizes when faced with making a decision or exhibiting behavior that may break with commonly held personal or societal values.  Understands the impact of violating these beliefs and codes on an organization, self and others.  Chooses an ethical  course of action.


The arts place these learning objectives within a real ”hands-on” environment  rather than insisting that students first learn in the abstract what they will be expected to apply.


A final question:  Are schools restricting arts instruction to the classroom or are they reaching out ?  The rich resources beyond the school–our theatres, museums, and galleries, along with professional artists–are they being mobilized in a comprehensive effort to enrich instruction?  Arts education must effectively extend beyond the classroom into the community.


Arts as basic skills combine the efforts of education, business, and  arts community as our youth receive the skills they need  to succeed in this contemporary world.

Norm Knight is a pseudonym used by a long-time New Jersey educational consultant.



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