The Arts and Humanities in a Well-Rounded Education

In proclaiming October as National Arts and Humanities Month, President Obama reminds us that the arts and humanities, embodied in Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We Live With” which hangs just outside of the Oval Office, “often challenge us to consider new perspectives and to rethink how we see the world.”

As core academic subjects, the arts and humanities equip young persons with the capacities to learn from the past, question the present, and envision new possibilities for the future. They are essential to a well-rounded, P-12 education for all Americans. I join with President Obama and the First Lady in rejecting the notion that the arts, history, foreign languages, geography, and civics are ornamental offerings that can be cut from schools during a fiscal crunch.

The study of history and civics provides a sense of time beyond the here and now.  The study of geography and culture helps build a sense of space and place. The study of drama, dance, music, and the visual arts helps students explore realities that cannot be summarized simply or even expressed in words or numbers.

A well-rounded curriculum that embraces the arts and humanities is not a luxury but a necessity in the information age. Young people need to be able to decipher complex digital communications; to appreciate and demand good design in their lives, communities,  and the marketplace; to not be fooled by superficial aesthetics that appeal to the senses while masking half-truths or worse;  and to turn the tables on technology by becoming skilled creators and not merely consumers of information.

For all these reasons, I urge all America’s school leaders – superintendents, principals, and school boards – to embrace a well-rounded education for all students. Our schools need to sustain arts and humanities programs where they are robust, and strengthen them where they are not. As President Obama notes, a well-rounded education will give students opportunities to be “the creative thinkers of tomorrow.”

Arne Duncan


  1. Mr. Duncan,

    In May of this year you wrote a forward to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (PCAH) report “Reinvesting in Arts Education:Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools” and stated that “I believe that all students should have the opportunity to experience the arts in deep and meaningful ways. The opportunity to learn about the arts and to perform as artists is an essential part of a well-rounded curriculum and complete education. The study of drama, dance, music, and the visual arts helps students explore realities, relationships, and ideas that cannot be conveyed simply in words or numbers” (p. 2). I contend that as a teacher whose educational career has taken me from elementary arts educator to that of a secondary English and drama teacher, the space for students “to experience the arts in deep and meaningful ways” has deminished as accountability for students, teachers, and schools has become focused on standardized tests only based in words and numbers. Art has been cut at all levels of education because its justification cannot be statistically analyzed and quantified in terms that reduce to the definition of accountability.

    How do educators embrace a well-rounded education that includes arts when there are no artists in the schools and classroom teachers have no idea through their education or professional development how to include arts “as a necessity in the information age?” Yes, I agree, inclusion and integration of arts into core curriculum would allow all of America’s children to have a well-rounded education. How do you and the current administration realistically suggest that art be put back into all students’ educational experience so that they do have the equal opportunity to “‘be the creative thinkers of tomorrow?'”

  2. In order to compete in the changing marketplace, today’s kids need to develop the “four Cs’ (communication, collaboration, creative problem-solving and critical thinking) as well as the traditional “three Rs.” The Partnership for 21st Century Skills shows that these skills are most in demand from today’s employers. They’re the same skills that are directly associated with arts education. Leading school districts in 16 states are already responding to this. Unfortunately, none of them are in Florida. Why is this most forward thinking in education not nationalized, while bubble-testing homogenization that does NOTHING to actually improve kids’ education is embraced?

  3. All the posters above are right. This is just the blog version of the empty, but lovely-sounding and allegedly inspiring speechifying of both President Obama and Arne Duncan. I would just add that the time in the day spent on the arts and humanities is not just about the future lives of our children. These add to the “felt life” of our children and add to the very texture of their day. But in the US we only teach to some future idea of the children before us. We do not teach the children in front of us and we tend to care little about how they experience life, day in and day out. It is why we are content to let so many of them live in poverty while we train them to take tests.

  4. I completely agree with this article. However, NCLB and FL’s state high stakes testing mandates have the opposite effect. When the focus is on a test score in reading, math and science, there isn’t going to be much effort put to social studies or art education. When teachers are evaluated based on how their students perform on the reading test, that becomes their job description. Art, music, social studies, woodworking, PE, etc do not factor into this and get pushed aside. This accountability program has not improved our schools. What would improve our schools? Proper funding paired with proper supports for our teachers and classrooms. Socioeconomic status is the greatest predictor of school achievement. If we want to close the achievement gap, we need to focus on reducing the effects of low SES. When students come to school late and hungry, it’s hard to force feed them reading skills.

  5. Why, they just take time away from test prep in ELA and math right? If a school admin and teachers are going to be held accountable for the results of all the mandated bubble tests we now have thanks to NCLB and face punishment in the form of loss of funding, their jobs and even closure of the school, if the children do not make enough “adequate yearly progress”, which do you think is going to be a priority at that school with all the budget cuts? Embracing future creative thinkers with art, music and history programs or using all available time and resources for test prep? Ask most public schools in our country right now and sadly the answer will be the same. Until they stop asking our schools to cut their budgets year after year and until all this emphasis on standardized testing is scaled back we will continue to lose the arts and creative thinking in our schools.

  6. Mr. Duncan, your actions speak louder than your words. You know perfectly well that when you support the corporate welfare policies of Jeb Bush and Bill Gares in education, the arts and humanities suffer. You know perfectly well that the increased focus on testing takes time and money away from music, art, and history. Children in Florida who do not do well on the FCAT are deprived of the opportunity to take elective courses. Please stop being a hypocrite.

  7. I agree Mr. Duncan, but I don’t see it happening. This message should be shouted from the rooftops, but from you it’s only a blog. Where’s the action? Where is the understanding of our educational system? A basic understanding would provide the realization that punishing schools and teachers because of test scores creates an atmosphere that diminishes the place of the arts and humanities. The preparation time for tests drives out creativity from teachers and students – -FROM SCHOOLS. Through NCLB, we are not preparing kids for the future, we are preparing them for the next test. Part of developing creativity is developing the understanding that there may be several answers to a problem; standardized tests teach that there is one right answer – and once that answer is found, thinking stops.

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