When schools are faced with a budget crunch, as so many are, art teachers and art classes are among the first to go on the chopping block. As the New York Times reports, this appears to be the case in New York City:

For the first time in four years, the number of certified arts teachers in the city’s public schools is declining, according to a report to be released by the Center for Arts Education on Thursday.

In 2009-2010, there were 135 fewer arts teachers in the city schools than in the previous school year, after principals chose to cut positions from their budgets or not replace arts teachers who left. The 5 percent drop puts the number of certified arts teachers working in the schools back to where it was in 2007, when the city first began to survey principals….

…Schools, however, have also cut back greatly on other spending for the arts. Since 2007, when the city began surveying schools’ art education, spending on supplies has dropped to slightly more than $2 million from over $10 million. In a system with more than a million students, that comes to about $2 per student.

This general scenario matches up with other stories I’ve seen. But why should art be on the chopping block before history class? I believe we romanticize history, making it seem practically and ideally more important than it is. People defend history in the gauzy language of citizenship, with appeals that rarely rise above aphorism. “Those who don’t history are bound to repeat it”. This doesn’t hold up in a practical sense though. There’s a reason the phrase isn’t “those who have history as a significant part of their high school curriculum are bound to repeat it”. Being taught history doesn’t make you better voters unless you remember that history. I’m not going to go down the litany of things that huge percentage of Americans incorrectly believe about history, instead I’ll just give one prominent example. How many hundreds of millions of dollars to we spend each year teaching kids about the Civil War, and still 42% of people don’t know we fought it over slavery?

If we want students to know the most important facts and stories about history for the sake of those facts, then having them watch a few documentaries should cover the bases pretty well. As Will Wilkinson pointed out to me, history is something anyone with reading comprehension can teach themselves, in contrast art is a skill that in most cases requires careful instruction. Like I said, even people without reading comprehension can learn most of what they do in high school through documentaries and the History Channel.

Ideally speaking, I don’t think history is the most important subject when it comes to making better voters. You’d do better off to drill students on economics 101 and the basics of the budget. Maybe then we’d wouldn’t have a citizenry convinced that foreign aid is a large portion of our spending, and that understands the downsides of price controls. More importantly schools could stop reinforcing the notion that voting is some moral obligation, and let people know that voting on the basis of uninformed biases is far worse than not voting whatsoever.

There’s also a large cognitive dissonance whereby we view art as being something soft, idealistic, unpractical, and unserious compared to other school subjects. Art is a fun distraction, whereas history is serious business. But of the two art is clearly the more practical real world subject. Many serious, button downed, grown-up careers require artistic skills: architects, marketing, graphic design, engineers, web designers, city planners… the list goes on. Which careers require knowledge of history? Journalists, history teachers, politicians? It seems as though the caricatures of these fields should be exactly the opposite, and that history should be viewed as soft, idealistic, and unpractical, whereas art should be viewed as the hard-nosed practical subject of serious people.

Even in these cases where a career requires knowledge of history, like those above, what they need is 60% confined to modern world history, and the other 40% to modern world history. Where does knowledge of explorers, Mayans, and pilgrims come into play in any career? In art class even when you’re learning how to do stuff you won’t directly use in the future, you’re picking up artistic skills that have wider importance than their immediate application.

For the modern economy, for the betterment of our country, I say down with history, up with art.

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