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The Case for Arts Education: Don’t Take Away Their Shot

In January Hamilton arrived in San Diego on a leg of its US tour and I was finally able to experience what everyone has been talking about. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I hadn’t had time to listen to the soundtrack as everyone told me to do. I had enough time to read the synopsis online, so at least I figured I could follow. My concern was that the rap would be hard to understand and that I would miss the story line. But I was wrong. So wrong. I am not a huge consumer of rap or hip hop and have had limited experience with spoken word, but none of that mattered. This was completely accessible and totally engaging. Even my nearly 92-year old mother (who made sure everyone in assisted living knew she had “a ticket to Hamilton!!”) loved it and understood it.

A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda is innovative and inspired as he tells a comprehensive historical narrative with spoken word, hip hop music, and dance. Rhythm and rhyme, prose and poetry, clever and poignant, with that non-stop beat of the art form . . . it was exhilarating and educational. As a political science undergrad, one would think I would remember all those Federalist Papers and the making of the government stuff, but through Miranda’s entertaining and memorable work, I understand our nation’s history now in a way I didn’t before. If someone had used this kind of creative work to teach me … well pretty much anything… I probably would have been more engaged and my education would have been more indelible than it was when I read primary texts in my dorm room at 2:00 AM in the ‘80’s.

Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up attending a magnet school in Manhattan where they would culminate each school year by putting on a musical. In 2016, he was quoted as saying in an interview with Stephen Raskauskas at WFMT in Chicago:

For our sixth-grade play, Mr. Sherman and Ms. Ames basically ran out of age appropriate musicals for elementary school children. They ended up going to a summer intensive for teachers where they worked on writing musicals with the kids. When school started, they said, ‘You’re not performing a sixth-grade play, you’re writing your own.’

In the same interview, Miranda was quoted saying, “Arts education … saved my life” and as for his response following the experience he had writing that musical in sixth grade, “I am doing this for the rest of my life if they will let me!”

Arts education has so many facets, from teaching an art form or using the arts in service to subject matter content, to providing opportunities for young people to experience the power of music, dance, theatre or visual arts through observational or experiential learning. When we advocate for arts education in the schools, we do it because we know that in every classroom in America there is someone who will find a means of self-expression, a reason to come to school, a way to share their story or to tell a story that reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We advocate for arts education because without it we are failing to provide young people with all of the options for finding what brings them purpose or meaning. And we do it because we never know when the impact of a student’s creative experience in sixth-grade will propel them to know what they want to do for the rest of their life. Let’s not “take away their shot”.


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