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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Op-ed: Creative investments: The economic power of arts education in fueling innovation and prosperity

It is undeniable that the prioritization of STEM subjects exists as a global phenomenon. Most people believe that those in STEM have superior intellect, better employment prospects and ultimately greater success. Conversely, disciplines that are usually optional electives and non-core subjects, such as the arts, have often been marginalized in educational discourse. What we don’t realize is that engaging in the arts is not merely a hobby, but one of the key factors that can provide growth and development to the economy.

During my summer and winter breaks in high school, I volunteered at local monasteries in rural parts of Myanmar as an art instructor, providing basic drawing and painting lessons to monks aged between eight to 18. Myanmar is a low-income country with limited integration of arts in its education system. My experience prompted me to contemplate the possibilities of bridging this gap in the education of young individuals in Myanmar and its implications on the economic development of the country. I wondered how arts and culture, and specifically arts in education,  could promote or inhibit economic development.

A survey of CEOs conducted by the consultancy PwC in 2017 showed that 77% found it difficult to find the creativity and innovation skills they need in the workplace and that increasing demand for ‘soft’ skills, including creativity, has been outstripping the demand for STEM skills. The deficiency of such ‘soft’ skills with the increasing demand is especially prevalent in the commercial world, entailing skills such as independent thinking, problem-solving, flexibility and cooperation, which can be fostered through creativity. The dearth of creativity and innovation in the workforce underscores the critical role of arts education, as it provides a fertile ground for advancing skills that are necessitated by the workplace.

Furthermore, the argument that there is a lack of career opportunities in the arts is only weakening. On a national level, arts and cultural goods and services in the U.S. have directly contributed to the national gross domestic product by 4.3%, approaching a total of almost a trillion dollars. This amount comprises more of the national GDP than industries such as construction, transportation, and warehousing. Having been a source of U.S. exports, the trade surplus in the arts grew tenfold between 2006–19. It is empirically evident that arts and culture is a continually growing and demanding sector that should be regarded with no less importance than many other more ‘prestigious’ sectors.

Lastly, there is a great dichotomy between arts and STEM subjects, where we fail to realize their compatibility. Howard Gardner of Harvard’s Project Zero — an initiative that researches education — argued that artistic and aesthetic education holds equal importance to logical and verbal skills learned in science, social studies and language arts. This suggests that core subjects, specifically STEM, go hand in hand with the arts. Such an idea is the crux of the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, or STEAM, movement. In a study investigating the impact of STEAM lessons on grades 3–5 in high-poverty elementary schools, findings suggest that students who received just nine hours of STEAM instruction made improvements in their science achievement. Another study showed that arts integration in language arts and math resulted in better performance than those without. The STEAM movement allows the inclusion of innovation and creativity by diversifying the original principles of STEM and allowing the growth of well-rounded individuals equipped to tackle complex challenges in society.

In essence, to be creative does not mean to be less intelligent. Creativity is a contributing factor of a lot of success and innovation. The integration of arts education into mainstream curricula represents a strategic investment in human capital, with far-reaching implications for economic prosperity and societal advancement. Arts education not only cultivates individual talents but also develops a holistic skill set essential for the modern workplace. By recognizing the intrinsic value of arts as a driver of innovation and cultural enrichment, nations can unlock the full potential of their populace, fostering a workforce equipped to meet the multifaceted challenges of the 21st century. Thus, promoting arts education and reforms has great benefits for not only education but also identity, development, and culture.