An excellent article published on the Educational Researcher website and summarized in the New York Times, demonstrates the value of arts in education for building conceptual and critical skills in general. The original study, entitled “Learning to Think Critically: A Visual Art Experiment”

“We conduct a randomized controlled trial involving 3,811 students who were assigned by lottery to participate in a School Visit Program at the newly opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art,” explains the abstract for the original study. ” Students who participated in the School Visit Program demonstrated significantly stronger critical thinking skills when analyzing a new painting.”

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR, opened in late 2011, endowed by Walmart heiress Alice Walton as, according to its materials, the first new art museum with a top-class endowment to open in the U.S. since 1974. This also made it an ideal test bed for a study on the impact of a major new artistic resource on a community.

Crystal Bridges Museum
Learn how to think here

The study is actually described with exemplary concision in the NYT article by Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene and Daniel H. Bowen under the simple title “Art Makes You Smart,” which sums it up, really. And which they demonstrate in great detail.

“Strong causal relationships do in fact exist between arts education and a range of desirable outcomes,” averred the authors in the NYT piece. “Students who, by lottery, were selected to visit the museum on a field trip demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills, displayed higher levels of social tolerance, exhibited greater historical empathy and developed a taste for art museums and cultural institutions.”

There are also important implications about the benefits of public arts facilities for all social levels. “These effects were larger for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds,” the abstract continued. “In light of recent declines in the availability of the arts for disadvantaged populations, our results have important policy implications for efforts to restore and expand access to the arts.” In other words, if you want to exert a disproportionately strong influence on the critical thinking skills of a disadvantaged social group, let them see and study some art.

My only objection to this whole exercise goes like this: Well no shit, Sherlock. Didn’t it occur to anyone before now that all that stuff on walls must have been good for something? Did we have to wait to be busted out of this Taylorist, dumb utilitarian, scientistic brainlock by the same methods and prejudices that got us into it in the first place? Did we really have to wait for a study like this to emphasize what should have been literally staring us in the face?

You would have had a hard time convincing Leonardo or Cosimo de Medici that art was not immediately good and beneficial for the whole man and the completely educated mind. Even your average Italian Renaissance peasant would have got the message from all the frescoes and effigies on the church or cathedral walls. And yet in the early 21st century, in the planet’s richest and most sophisticated nation, we need a sociological study to half-convince us of this? And would any public institution have had the spare resources and the courage to justify this if not backed by a major private endowment? My more pessimistic fear is that we are lumbered with such a baggage of half-digested, outdated preconceptions about art versus science or fact versus fiction that our education and thinking will be hobbled by them for evermore.


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