Here are some claims I have heard about the arts and the evidence of neuroscience: Music training improves children’s ability to read. The performing arts improve creativity. Visual arts training correlates with children’s enhanced ability to do math calculations. Dance training improves “executive function” (organizing, planning, etc.).
Some of these studies might turn out to be right and others wrong. What bothers me is the assumption behind the superficial news reports surrounding them. They purport that the arts are important only if they make people “smarter” in the way we usually think of intelligence.
The arts are important for other reasons. They put us in touch with the things that give meaning to life. Reading a good novel teaches us about emotional experience, both our own and others’. Music can unfold something profound and joyous in our spirit. Art helps us see the relationships in the world in fresh and unexpected ways. These are all means of developing sensitivity to life’s deeper, more joyous, sadder and more profound levels than we live in everyday life. Technology can act in the service of all of the arts, in addition to its essential information and communication roles. Even physical activity, carried out for its own sake, can elevate while it trains the body.
We all need skills and knowledge, but we also need access to the reservoirs of meaning that varied cultural expressions can open within us. Any education, and certainly a spiritual education, needs to embrace the fullness of human endeavor and expression. This issue of Akiba Achshav describes some of the current programs that extend that embrace to Sinai Akiba students.