Julie Andrews, Emma Walton: Kids' participation in arts creates measurable success in school
They say arts are a regular target of budget cuts. This is a big mistake. Arts enrich communities economically and culturally
Editor’s Note: Julie Andrews, stage and screen actress and director, and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, writer and producer, have written more than 30 books for children and recently co-created Julie’s Greenroom, a series for family audiences that celebrates the arts. It will be available on Netflix globally on March 17. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
What if there was one activity that could guarantee your kids would do better in school and cope well with life’s challenges? And what if this same activity helped them grow up to be lifelong learners, have more success in their chosen career, earn a higher salary and have more fulfilling relationships? What if it even made them more likely to volunteer, be philanthropic, vote – and ultimately, live longer, healthier, happier lives?
In fact, there is such an activity. It is participation in the arts.
Decades worth of research attests to the fact that the arts are among the most profoundly important and valuable ways to improve learning and promote success, from early childhood through adulthood.
Indeed, according to four longitudinal studies compiled and published by the National Endowment for the Arts, young people who engage regularly with the arts are twice as likely to read for pleasure, three times more likely to win an award for attendance or be elected to class office, and four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement or perform community service.
These students have higher grade-point averages and standardized test scores, and lower dropout rates, and they reap these benefits regardless of socioeconomic status.
And yet, the arts are the first to go when the budget ax falls. Now, with the shifting priorities of our new presidential administration, artists and arts organizations are at serious risk of losing the support they need to do their invaluable work. Funding resources, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, are in danger of being eliminated altogether. And poor, inner-city and rural communities, whose access to such resources are scarce to begin with, will shoulder a disproportionate share of those losses.
This is mind-boggling to us, considering how much the arts benefit our lives and our world. They foster collaboration and creativity, essential skills for navigating in the workplace and surviving in a challenging world. They cultivate empathy and tolerance, by bridging cultural and socioeconomic divides. They’re also good for business: They spur urban renewal, promote tourism and generate hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity annually.
The typical arts attendee often shops and pays for meals, parking, babysitting and other services while attending cultural events or arts programs. And the use of arts programs in health care environments has even been shown to deliver benefits like shorter hospital stays and better pain management.
In our professional and personal lives, we have seen and experienced these benefits firsthand.
Julie has heard from countless people over the decades who believe their lives were enriched by the inspiration, comfort and sense of connection they received from the music, stories, films and productions in which she was fortunate enough to participate. And in her philanthropic work, serving on the board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and as a member of the Artists Committee for Americans for the Arts, she has witnessed the impact that arts education has for young people on an international basis
In 1991, Emma and her husband, Stephen Hamilton, co-founded Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, where Julie later performed, directed and served as a member of the board. Within a few short years of its opening, local real estate agencies were adding “walk to theater!” to their sales and rental listings. To this day, local restaurants offer dinner theater specials, and shops stay open late to accommodate the theater-going crowd.
As creator of the theater’s Young Audience programming, and subsequently as director of the Young Artists and Writers Project at Stony Brook University, Emma has seen students base their decision to attend college — or not to drop out — on the opportunities provided by the arts. She has watched young people with no prior sense of direction discover their voices and their passion, improve their academic record, and, perhaps most significantly, grow into compassionate, contributing citizens, as a result of taking part in arts-based programs.
There was the student who sat silently at the back of a playwriting class for the better part of the semester, ski hat pulled low over his forehead, arms folded defiantly across his chest. Who would have thought he would ultimately write an award-winning political satire that was selected for production, and go on to start a student-written and edited section of his local newspaper, before attending journalism school?
There was the shy young woman who blossomed after being given the responsibility of leading the scene change crew, and the young man who had never been in a play, but who, despite having endured a broken wrist in a gang fight earlier in the day, showed up to perform that evening nonetheless. There was the boy who courageously confronted his years of sexual abuse by writing, and then acting in, a play about his experiences.
The arts are fundamental to our common humanity. Every time we attend the theater, a museum or a concert, we are literally feeding our souls, and investing in and preserving our collective future. To paraphrase the great Katherine Anne Porter, when all about us is lying in the ashes, it is the arts that remind us who we are, where we came from and what matters most.
We feel it has never been more critical to advocate for and support the arts – not just in our schools, but in our communities and our lives. We therefore respectfully request that every member of our society – individuals, educators, administrators, business leaders – do everything possible to preserve and advance this most precious and essential resource, and demand that our elected representatives do the same.