By Benita M. Dodd
Growing up in a dreary, low-income community where even restaurants were nonexistent – Wentworth, South Africa – there were few tools to power my imagination as a child.
It was the days before television (introduced in 1976 to South Africa). It was the era of oppression under apartheid, where everything was choreographed by race and we were second-class citizens without a vote. We didn’t own our home. We traveled by bus; we had no car. To support my family, my dad – a carpenter by trade – worked out of town, coming home for the weekend every two weeks. Today, when I remember how my wardrobe largely comprised my mother’s hit-and-miss sewing attempts and our neighbors’ hand-me-downs, I console myself with the thought that at least I was the oldest!
Overcrowded schools were poor and so were my parents, who sacrificed to pay school fees and for uniforms and supplies … and for luxuries such as the rare field trip organized by an inspired teacher. The students whose parents couldn’t afford field trips had to stay behind.
In those days, three things inspired me: My teachers, books and the arts. I’m forever grateful to my parents, who shorted themselves as they scrimped to accommodate my always-darting attention span and hunger for the next great adventure. Ballet for a while. Speech and drama. Piano. Supplies for the after-school painting class one teacher offered. Books; tons of books. And a monthly plan to pay for a set of encyclopedia. I can still see the white covers with the tree of knowledge and the dreams inside as I pored over each of Grolier Enterprises’ Book of Knowledge.
I did it all, not all of it very well. But, in the words of Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the places you’ll go,” when such doors are opened to you.
I share all of this to say: Never underestimate the power of art in education, of aesthetics in academic achievement.
What led me to this trip down Memory Lane is a recent study by my friend and colleague Jay Greene and fellow researchers from the University of Arkansas, “The Educational Value of Field Trips.”
The study involved students visiting Crystal Bridges, a museum holding five centuries of American art in Bentonville, Ark. – funded primarily by Alice Walton, heir to the Walmart fortune – that opened in 2011. The museum offered area schools free class field trips plus an hour’s worth of instructional materials for classroom use. There were so many applications that the museum had to use a lottery.
I’ll cut to the chase. According to the researchers, “Students from high-poverty schools (those where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches) experience an 18 percent effect-size improvement in critical thinking about art, as do minority students.”
Even better, as createequity.com reports, the study found “… Students who had visited the museum were also more likely to try to imagine what people depicted in art were thinking (part of the authors’ measure of ‘historical empathy’) and less likely to want to censor anti-American art (‘tolerance’).
“At least for a few weeks after visiting, when the assessments were administered, museums seem to encourage students to take art on its own terms: they look more closely; enter the world of a painting more fully; and suspend their prejudices more effectively. This is the state of mind that makes critical thinking – not to mention understanding and appreciation of alternative viewpoints – possible.”
The researchers write in Education Next that results, “suggest that art could be an important tool for effectively conveying traditional academic content, but this analysis cannot prove it.”
“Suggest?” This once-underserved kid is here to tell you field trips are a crucial academic tool.
Never think that education is not just about the three Rs, even for those struggling with the three Rs. Before you criticize what you see as time-wasting, frivolous “art appreciation” at a school – especially a struggling school with students from low-income families – understand the trap they’re in; their lack of opportunity and the promise this holds.
Understand, too, there may be the lack of a legacy for art appreciation – for imagination – in low-income homes. Field trips, especially to museums, can take students out of their box and open a door to worlds beyond the harsh realities of their surroundings. Something as simple as a field trip can foster hope, tolerance, understanding, visions of beauty and create dreams of doing and being better.
Field trips open minds. I know. I’m proof. But now I have a study to back me up.
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
Benita Dodd is Vice President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a driving force for market-based solutions to policy challenges. The work done by this outstanding organization is making a real impact on the future of Georgia. I personally consider the Foundation a primary source for policy ideas. All Georgians are better off because the Foundation is helping lead the critical policy debates in our state.