A Publication of WTVP

By leveraging the power of the arts, we can stimulate creativity in our children and better prepare them with 21st-century job skills.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is famous for his insistence on ever-present change in the universe. This is clear in his statement, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.” If he were alive today—in the 21st century—he might be compelled to articulate his wisdom differently: “Nobody awakes in the same world twice.”

It is well known that all things change at varying speeds. Both the slow pace of change in rock erosion and the mind-boggling rapidity of data being shared on the Internet are beyond our ability to grasp. Every hour, worldwide data increases by more than 450 quadrillion bits of information. While that figure is nearly impossible to envision, the resulting effects of shared knowledge are much more apparent.

More Than Meets the Eye
Technology has miniaturized our world and at the same time, put the universe at our fingertips. Obstacles that once hindered us are now opportunities for advancement. What was once available for the privileged few is very nearly within the reach of everyone… or will be shortly. Mark Zuckerberg wants to connect everyone on Earth to the Internet, and has established, a consortium of like-minded companies, to accomplish this goal. The only thing that won’t be changed by the realization of his dream is the acceleration of change itself.

One area that might seem immune to change is the personal expression of art. Artists are sometimes stereotyped as individuals who aren’t even interested in technology; tubes of crimson red, cobalt blue and cadmium yellow were all the colors needed to paint a rainbow of expressions. Not too long ago, a roll of Kodachrome and a good sharp lens provided photographers with everything they needed to express themselves as artists. Of course, their choice of media was technology-based from the beginning, but it was analog, or more accurately, mechanically-based technology. The recent flood of digital technology has completely altered not only photography but the entire world of art and its reach. With access to technology, artistic skills can be developed by anyone with a desire to be expressive.

Art is often considered the playground of poets, painters and performers, and is not always recognized as an essential part of our common daily experience. But it is. In fact, art, or the broader classification of “the arts,” is so completely integrated into our lives that we don’t even acknowledge its presence as something separate.

Everything from the design of our coffee makers to the movies we enjoy has a direct connection to artistic aptitude. If you look at the bigger picture, beyond just the fine arts, there is clearly more to art than meets the eye.

Turning the Tides
First and foremost, art is more than pictures on the wall. It is more than the orchestrated sounds that soothe our soul. Art teaches us that problems have more than one solution, and that questions can have more than one answer. The foundation of art is creativity—generating new ideas and looking for solutions rather than simply reciting facts.

Creativity is what fuels innovation, and innovation fosters the enhancements in our lives. That is something we all could enjoy more of.

Art adds more to our lives than we acknowledge, but paradoxically, many believe it’s an insignificant part of our lives that doesn’t need to be encouraged or cultivated. Otherwise, why would we crowd it out from much of the curriculum in schools? What explanation do we have for not fostering the integration of creativity into all classes, from math to science?

There is an extensive knowledge base of studies to suggest that the arts are critical to childhood education. The arts encourage critical thinking and problem solving. They teach perseverance, decision making, and how to work through difficulties for success. The arts can build self-esteem and provide reward. The arts are unmatched in stimulating the imagination.

But the tides appear to be turning back toward encouraging creativity through the inclusion of arts education. “To prosper in our economy, workers need creativity skills,” says Ra Joy, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois. To this end, the Illinois Arts Education Advisory Committee—consisting of Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and experts in arts education, teachers, artists and directors of philanthropic organizations—has developed a plan for improving arts education. A draft of the seven-step Arts Education Policy Improvement Agenda was posted online this fall for public comments, says Joy, and to get arts advocates aware and onboard.

“Study after study shows that young people who are exposed to arts-enriched curriculum outperform students without arts education,” Joy notes. “In addition, 72 percent of business leaders say that creativity is the No. 1 skill they seek when hiring.”

“The arts foster creativity, innovation and collaborative thinking,” adds Congressman Aaron Schock, “which are all critical skills for competing in a global economy.” All are strong arguments for emphasizing that arts be included in schools to get students college- and career-ready.

Integrating Technology into the Arts
In central Illinois, we’re fortunate that a number of organizations and groups offer creativity classes and arts programs outside of school. A quick check online reveals visual and performing arts programs offered by the Contemporary Art Center, Sun Foundation, Peoria Park District, Peoria Riverfront Museum, Hope Renewed, Peoria Art Guild, The Hive, individual artists and more.

We should also consider the potential offered by technology that is within everyone’s grasp, but not fully integrated into school curricula: digital media, including music, music videos, short films, documentaries, electronic storytelling, digital photography, digital comic books, animation and video games. On YouTube alone, 100 hours of video are uploaded every minute. Sponsors for popular videos are attaching advertisements to popular content that pays young producers for the audiences they attract. This is evidence that entirely new avenues for revenue are opening up for professionals and nonprofessionals alike. To benefit from this opportunity, we need to embrace teaching the arts to stimulate creativity and problem solving. We need to give our youth an opportunity to learn how to create. We need to establish a venue that not only encourages self-expression, but rewards initiative.

Let’s make Peoria the birthplace of teaching 21st-century job skills through the digital media arts. We could find funding through grants to hire artists and teachers necessary to instruct afterschool and weekend classes. We could enlist the business community to help sponsor teams of students. We could organize an annual event to showcase their skills. And without much effort, we could again have the world awaken one morning to Peoria as the birthplace and cultivator of great talent. iBi

Doug and Eileen Leunig are photographic artists living and working in Peoria. They were named ArtsPartners of the Year in 2012.