By comparing outcomes for students who had these art experiences—by chance—with the outcomes of those who did not, we can identify with confidence what the arts do for young people. The approach we took, which is typical in medical research, creates treatment and control groups that are, on average, identical in their backgrounds and prior interests, with only chance determining the distinction between the two groups. Therefore, any subsequent differences we observed in the students were caused by touring an art museum or seeing live theater, not a result of pre-existing differences among them.
We were also careful to focus on outcomes that could plausibly be altered by the arts. We didn’t look at math- and reading-test scores because we have no reason to expect that arts experiences would have an impact on them. Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner, who are affiliated with the education research group Project Zero at Harvard University, have conducted systematic reviews of the research literature and found little credible evidence that the benefits of the arts transfer to other academic subjects. We should no more expect the arts to boost math scores than expect math to enhance appreciation for the arts.
Instead, we looked at whether exposure to the arts affected students’ knowledge of the arts and altered their desire to consume the arts in the future. We also looked at whether art experiences had an effect on student values, such as tolerance and empathy. Finally, we looked at whether students’ ability to engage in critical thinking about the arts was affected by these experiences.
The results across our two experiments were remarkably consistent: These cultural experiences improve students’ knowledge about the arts, as well as their desire to become cultural consumers in the future. Exposure to the arts also affects the values of young people, making them more tolerant and empathetic. We suspect that their awareness of different people, places, and ideas through the arts helps them appreciate and accept the differences they find in the broader world. Arts experiences boost critical thinking, teaching students to take the time to be more careful and thorough in how they observe the world. Noticing details in paintings during a school tour, for example, helps train students to consider details in the future.
These improved outcomes may not boost scores on math and reading tests, but most parents, communities, and educators care about them. We don’t just want our students to learn vocationally useful skills in math and reading. We also want them to be knowledgeable and frequent patrons of the arts. We want them to be tolerant and empathetic human beings. And we want them to be astute observers of their surroundings. Some of these qualities may help students earn a living, but their importance has more to do with students’ development into cultured and humane people.
Our experiments suggest that rigorous study can document the additional effects of the arts on students, including the educational benefits of poetry, literature, music, film, and dance. Future studies could also consider other possible outcomes. Perhaps the arts encourage students to be more engaged in school, improve graduation rates, and increase college attendance, all of which tend to contribute to happiness and productivity.
None of this research will occur, however, until defenders of the arts recognize the need for it. Arts advocates can no longer rely on weak studies that simply compare students who participate in the arts with those who don’t. Such studies are pervasive, and the claims they make are likely overblown. Skeptics can correctly wonder whether the research truly demonstrates that the arts make people awesome, or if awesome people are simply attracted to the arts. To convince skeptics of how the arts can influence a student’s trajectory, future studies will have to adopt rigorous research designs that can isolate causal effects.
Art collectors are bidding up prices, and enormous fortunes are devoted to acquiring and displaying art. It makes little sense for arts patrons to spend a fortune acquiring and commissioning masterpieces, while failing to demonstrate the benefits of the arts with quality research. To determine whether there are important social benefits derived from arts activities, money should be invested in funding rigorous research, which can be expensive.
If the arts and culture are to remain a vibrant part of children’s education, arts patrons will need to step forward to help pay for the kind of quality research that shows not only what those benefits are, but just how significant they can be.