The arts - great for the brain, the soul and personal wellbeing

Each year the education of a boy, and the success of his school, comes down to being measured by a single measure which we all know as an ATAR. Unfortunately, it is given credence each time when we become engulfed by this annual feeding frenzy. It would be remiss of me not to reflect on the celebrations last week at Scotch; a week that clearly highlighted just what a comprehensive offering can do for boys, especially given that it was Arts Week for our community. Our slogan sent a powerful message for Arts Week: "Arts Week - it's all about the right brain."

Last week provided an exposé of our multi-talented boys from across the whole College. Whether it was in fine art, drama, film, graphic design, photography or music, our boys showcased just how important it is to pursue something from the Arts; not just for academic reasons, but also for the development of life long skills and their personal wellbeing.

Interestingly last week's Senior School Chapel focused on RUOK. Having an outlet in some form of the Arts has shown to have a very positive effect on anxiety and depression in adolescents and adults. In a world that puts so much pressure on econometric success, it is critical that we pursue things for the betterment of the heart and soul.

One of the greatest challenges I find as an educator is changing what appear to be very entrenched choices and beliefs when it comes to subject selection in schools; this is especially the case in Senior Schools when it becomes even more pronounced in the final two years of school. In my 34 years of working in education, not to mention my own schooling, we still appear to have a limited view on choosing an Arts related subject.


While the subject choices and opportunities have definitely expanded over time, our attitude to the pursuit of the Arts appears to be very similar. While the old 'core subjects' may have changed their names, little has changed when one looks at the subjects that students choose at Year 11 and 12. The subjects have had their names changed, and reorganized, however the usual suspects are still there as wolves in a lamb's suit. We all have a critical role to play in ensuring that our boys pursue a balanced course of study.

You do not have to be working in education to realise that a lot of the current government policy focus and rhetoric surrounds Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics (STEM). This is a good thing and as a College we are currently redesigning what we offer in these areas to ensure our boys graduate having received sufficient and relevant exposure to STEM. However, there is an inherent danger that the role of the Arts may be lost in this debate.

Mitchell B Reiss, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, was asked to reflect on the question below. Barbara Prey in the Huffington Post, Nov 9 2014, records his response:

What are your thoughts on STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) vs STEAM (inserting the Arts)?

We need both. And ideally, we need STEM grads who have integrated the arts into their scientific studies and artists who understand the sciences. This is one reason why we are promoting greater interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teaching and learning; it is a complex world and we need to understand the interconnections between and among science, the arts and humanities.

For example, Steve Jobs loved to talk about the intersection of technology and the humanities, which include the arts. In 2010, while introducing the iPad, he said "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing."

Throughout history, our greatest inventors and scientists have merged scientific knowledge and discovery with artistic creativity. For example, Albert Einstein studied piano and violin as a child and, when he was an adult, music helped him think things through. When he was having trouble with a scientific theory, he would strike a few chords on the piano or pick up the violin and play, and that would often free up a constructive thought or solution. He stressed the importance of the creative mind, once saying, "I'm enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

I do not believe the answer to promoting and increasing participation in the 'Arts' at school can be found through adding the letter 'A' to STEM; a strategy I have all too often heard coming from policy makers, educators and others who see solutions in trendy acronyms. The Arts must be able to stand alone and viewed as a priority in its own right.