When I was 10, my mother enrolled me in a painting class that met every Saturday at a local museum. We were novices of course, but, the encouragement we received to create our own masterpiece is what mattered; it’s what set the stage for the idea that anything was possible if we put our creative minds to the task. At my public elementary school, students excitedly got together twice a week to produce a cacophony of sounds in music class. It did not matter that we sounded like an explosion of confusion. In our minds, we were a legitimate orchestra. We were artists given the opportunity to create.
When I first watched the “Hot Cheetos and Takis” video, created by a group of Minneapolis students all aged 12 and under, my first thought was: “What are Takis?” My second thought was that these kids’ lyrics and cadence was better than half of the rappers out right now. But, what really shone through, were the kids’ confidence, their bravado, and their passionate claims about simple snacks. Think of Notorious B.I.G. spitting “milks was chocolate/the cookies, buttercrunch/In gear, Oshkosh with blue and white ducks…” Childhood nostalgia—the simplicity of running to the corner store or the schoolyard with the sole aim of eating a sugar-charged snack.
Then there is another recent viral hit, “Brother & Sister,” performed by the PS 22 choir from Staten Island, NY. Student Kiarah, who performs the lead on the song, also wrote all of the lyrics. Watching her and the chorus director Gregg Breinberg decide on the melody of the song only further reinforces how important the creative process is to children. Kiarah is beaming with pride about her creation. Standing at the helm of her own learning process, the result is an even greater desire for her to learn and perfect her craft.
There is something magical that occurs when a child is told they are free to draw from their surroundings and within to translate an expression. There is no history lesson or memorization necessary. The only requirement is to think big and to execute.
While women’s rights, the economy, and a whole slew of political scandals are sure to remain at the forefront of the November elections, there is another important issue that candidates rarely address– how to stimulate the youth to think big and dream big. The arts have always done this. In a country were nearly everything reads ‘Made in China,’ and half of our industrial working force has disappeared, the arts can bridge the gap between imagination and what is possible. Our country is in desperate need of more stimulating arts programs.
Congress has continued attempts at slashing the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the country’s largest funder of arts and cultural organizations. Most recently, $14 million dollars in cuts were put on the table. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Unified School District threatened to eliminate all of its school arts programs. In New York City, between 2006-2009 arts funding decreased by 70%. In stagnant economic times, politicians advocating for budget cuts in the arts argue that they are not profitable enough to keep debt at bay. However, the “Arts & Economic Prosperity Study” conducted by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit advocacy group, proves otherwise. According to the report, the American arts industry generates some $135.2 billion of economic activity every year. Of that activity, $61.1 billion comes from nonprofit arts and culture organizations and $74.1 billion from related spending by audiences.
After the shortcomings of the No Child Left Behind Act, including the pressure to meet number and test score quotas, what has been lost is the importance of an arts education. Although reading and math are integral to a student’s development, so are the arts. Case and point: in a study by the nonprofit Dana Foundation, neuroscientists at seven universities found that musical training improves reading by helping children distinguish the sound structure of words, while acting boosts memory and the ability to articulate ideas. Additionally, a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that people who engage in the arts or watch others do so are more likely to be civically engaged, socially tolerant, and altruistic.
Because it is so difficult to quantify the benefits of arts programs for children, many programs struggle to stay afloat with limited funding. But, there is something that the arts provide to children that no number could ever contain: freedom. Particularly in underserved communities, arts programs can serve as an opportunity for children to see the world in a different light, to believe that despite limited resources, what they think and create matters and can have leaping effects on their lives. It may cost thousands of dollars to attend the best schools this country has to offer, but to encourage a child to use his or her imagination is free. Fortunately, there are still programs like Fulton Arts in Atlanta, the Inner City Arts Program in Los Angeles and, of course, the North Community Beats and Rhymes program in Minneapolis, which produced “Hot Cheetos and Takis.”
Encouraging children to achieve success by thinking creatively is what has often produced the people who thought limitlessly enough to change the world, and did. There is no blueprint for success other than hard work. Imagine a world where we taught our children to work just as hard at the melody or vision playing in their heads as the arithmetic set sent home by their teacher. That’s right– imagine.