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What I Would Change About Arts Education in Canada

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Leading up to Canada Day, the Huffington Post blog team asked prominent Canadians what they would change about one aspect of our country. We are publishing their answers in our series "What I'd Change About Canada" leading up to July 1. You can find the full series here.

Canada gets a lot of things right. In fact, we get most things right. And our education system is a good example of that. It's a big, varied, complex, multi-faceted system that faces ever-new pressures to satisfy the demands, whether of funding, curricula or social expectations, that are constantly made on it. Despite these pressures, as recent studies have shown, we're among the best in the world when it comes to educating our children.

But if I could change one thing about Canada, it would be to place a greater emphasis on the study and practice of arts education at every level. There is a widespread presumption that schools nowadays must focus almost exclusively on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) if students are to be properly prepared to face the future and nobody can deny the importance of those areas of study to the vitality and prosperity of our society.

However, what is rarely mentioned in those presumptions is that countries that demonstrate high rates of accomplishment in STEM subjects are also the countries that place a high value on the study of the arts. For example, in Finland, a country that routinely tops the international education rankings, arts education is not marginalized but is an essential part of the overall educational fabric to which children are exposed. There are other elements at play in these results, of course; however, the lesson is that academic involvement with the arts, whether that means music, the visual arts, dance, creative writing or any other related discipline, is not simply a dispensable frill, but an integral aspect of the overall educational project and something from which everyone can benefit.

In Canada, however, despite many strong arts programs in existence, there is a tendency, especially when funding issues arise, to cut arts programs first despite their proven centrality to enhancing and improving the educational development of all students. Personally, this has always seemed like a terribly short-sighted and narrow understanding of what an education should be because the arts enrich everyone, whether or not one decides to make a life in the arts, as I have done. For what the arts teach goes beyond the specifics of the arts themselves, they foster empathy, imaginative responses to life, expressiveness, the discipline of learning a craft, the discovery of beauty and the lessons of striving again and again until you finally get something exactly right. And while these are all virtues in and of themselves, they also contribute to an individual's development in any field of activity.

The arts do something else too. In recognizing the individuality of every person and insisting that every individual has a voice that matters, the arts contribute crucially to the health of a truly democratic society. The arts, better than most academic disciplines, help to release those voices and encourage them to come forth, in all of the many and varied forms they take. As such, the arts are not just key to the joy and excitement of learning, but to the life of our culture in its most fundamental sense.

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