Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life

pots_pans“I’ve got pots: pots and pans. I’ve got pots: pots and pans…”

I marched around the dining room keeping time using a wooden spoon and my RevereWare saucepan, accompanied by Mickey Hart (former drummer for the Grateful Dead) and my 15-month old daughter who was keeping time in her own way using a frying pan and a wooden spatula.

“Yeah that’s the way that I like to play—banging on pots and pans.”

Okay, Mickey Hart was not actually in my kitchen banging on pots and pans. My daughter and I were performing to a track on a Boynton and Ford CD entitled Dog Train.

A recent study completed by the Dana Consortium on Arts and Cognition, a collaboration of researchers from seven universities, describes several close relationships between training in the arts and improved math and reading skills. The study does not prove cause-and-effect, but it does provide quantitative scientific data that support the beliefs of many: students who have experiences in the arts perform better in school. This initial study will guide scientists in asking questions to understand at a functional level the relationships between the arts and academic performance.

playing_potsOne set of experiments in this study indicated that children who pursue an art with focused determination are developing the neural pathways involved in attention, allowing them to focus better in school. A second line of investigation in this study asked whether musical training improves math skills. In this study, children who received intensive music training were much better at spatial tasks. At the same time researchers at Stanford University found that musical training correlated with reading fluency, and surprisingly they also found early exposure to visual arts may enhance abilities in math calculation.

These new studies on the relationship of arts and learning come at a time of recession, when educational budgets are stretched, and school districts are considering cutting arts programs to “focus on the basics”. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, calls this tactic of budgeting “a recipe for disaster”. At the same time studies in earlier part of this decade indicate that the United States is falling behind as a world-wide leader and innovator in science, medicine and technology. Perhaps Gioia is right, cutting arts in favor of the basics is exactly the wrong thing to do.

potteryI am not surprised that science and math abilities are enhanced by exposure to the arts. The scientists I encounter who are truly pushing the leading edge of discovery, the ones asking the interesting questions and making the great discoveries, all have some sort of closet artistic hobby. Some of them are concert pianists or jazz musicians; others are poets, writers or painters.

There is no endeavor that requires more creativity than carefully observing the world, creating and expressing an original thought about it and figuring out how to test that original thought. Renaissance scholars certainly understood this, with Leonardo da Vinci making as many contributions to medicine and engineering as he did to the visual arts. The same is true for Michelangelo. Science may be the most creative of all the arts, which is why I am determined to expose my daughter to as much art and music as possible. If she gravitates toward the piano, the saucepan, the dance floor, the paint brush, or the Hubble telescope, great. I will support her in her explorations because I know that they will only enhance her life, regardless of her chosen vocation.

My daughter falls asleep to Brahms and Beethoven. She dances to Clapton, and sings Old McDonald’s Farm with Ella Fitzgerald. So, if you hear me singing “Be like a duck” in the grocery line, or if you spy, through unshuttered windows, me high-stepping in rhythm while “playing” a saucepan, it’s okay. There is no need to call the authorities—yet.

© 2008,2009 Michele Arduengo

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