Stuyvesant has always been considered a math-and-science high school—our extensive science curricula and number of Intel finalists speak for themselves. But when did being a mathematical haven mean that the arts would have to take a back seat in both importance and educational value? Giving up the arts shouldn’t be a necessary sacrifice.
It’s not just us: the de-emphasis of the arts at Stuyvesant follows a nationwide trend especially prevalent during times of austerity when reduced funding often results in cuts to these subjects. Furthermore, the Common Core curriculum, which will be fully adopted by the State of New York this upcoming school year, directs attention away from creative endeavors and focuses on math and analytical writing. It determines that creative writing is less valuable than textual analysis, and doesn’t even include guidelines for classes like painting or ceramics.
What we fail to acknowledge both as a student body and as an educational system is the value of an arts education. In the specific case of Stuyvesant, it seems that those in charge have yet to realize that the arts can be used to strengthen our knowledge and skills in other fields. This is not an opportunity we can miss.
Offering 28 of the College Board’s 34 Advanced Placement courses, Stuyvesant prides itself on its extensive selection. But if we look at the six courses we do not provide, they include AP Art History and three Studio Art APs in Drawing, 2-D Design, and 3-D Design. Students who find they enjoy art history after Art Appreciation have no means of pursuing their interest with a more advanced class. Yet, other schools of similar caliber, notably the Bronx High School of Science, offer both AP Studio Art and AP Art History. More notably, unlike the band and chorus track that can replace Music Appreciation, there is no visual art track offered in place of Art Appreciation.
In the 2011- 2012 school year, 27 percent of New York City public high schools offered visual art tracks worth six or more credits. Given that one in four public high schools are offering this curriculum it would not be unreasonable for Stuyvesant to have one as well.
Granted, we do have some classes in the arts offered through 5 Techs, 10 Techs, and electives. But when 5 Techs and 10 Techs are phased out after next year, the options to pursue the arts in class will become limited to already oversubscribed electives.
“There are definitely not enough [art] classes,” art teacher Leslie Bernstein said. After Art Appreciation, “ the options are few and far between.”
Classes no longer offered, such as Introduction to Sculpture, Opera as Drama, and Songwriting, while still listed on Stuyvesant’s website, serve only as reminders of the more extensive array of classes in the past.
For the Class of 2015 and beyond, sophomore year will lack creative classes entirely.
“Currently, because drafting is now moved out of the sophomore year, there are no creative choices during [that] year,” Bernstein said. “You might say a writing class is creative, but as far as hands-on learning, it doesn’t exist.”
The only required art classes for the Class of 2015 will be Art and Music Appreciation. Not only are these classes not hands-on, they fail to foster the appreciation for the arts that their titles claim they provide. Instead of instruments and paintbrushes, freshmen are subjected to lists of dates and names for memorization. Classes meant to foster a love of culture instead spawn widespread cheating and frustration.
To remedy this, Stuyvesant should begin offering AP Art History and at least one of the three AP Studio Arts to provide advanced classes. A visual track could also be implemented earlier in a student’s career here, structured in a similar way to the music program already in place. Students could take classes in woodworking, painting, photography, or other fields starting in freshman year, in the same way that students can already play in various bands freshman through senior year.
At the very least, required freshman arts classes should be reformed. Instead of pedantic courses that emphasize memorization, we need them to have a hands-on approach. Rather than lectures about paintings and the occasional project, why not have students draw and paint for themselves during every class period? The rigid curricula of these classes must be done away with, since they put pressure on teachers to get through centuries of art and music without ever meaningfully focusing on a single piece. A more relaxed curriculum would allow for quality rather than quantity. Ultimately, the ideal is that a student walks out of Art Appreciation having made genuine insights about the paintings he saw, even if he doesn’t know what medium Pieter Bruegel the Elder used (which he’ll forget immediately after he takes the final anyway).
But this issue isn’t confined to the school-day curriculum. There’s a disheartening lack of administrative enthusiasm in our after-school arts activities. In recent years, SING! and the Stuyvesant Theater Community (STC), the two biggest bastions for creativity at Stuyvesant, have become subject to stricter rules and limits. Preparation time for SING!, an event which represents the peak of school spirit and unity of the student body, has been getting shorter and shorter. In 2003, SING! was six weeks long, with the New Haven performance on April 9. In 2009, New Haven was on March 18. This year we have less time than ever, with a week of all-days cut due to the shortened mid-winter break—New Haven will be at the very end of February.
SING! has evolved from a several-month production to one put on in less than a month in part because the administration’s concern that students will prioritize it over schoolwork. That, however, is our choice to make. Other after-school activities, such the speech and debate team, make huge demands on the time of its participants, and yet there hasn’t been a push to limit the time and resources they consume. Furthermore, if students had more time to prepare for SING!, rehearsals would be much shorter, leaving more time for us to complete schoolwork at night. Given more time, students would be less stressed and would perform better—both on the stage and in the classroom. This would also allow us to reap the benefits of the SING! experience, get the school excited about the arts, and provide us with a much needed creative outlet.
Furthermore, SING! suffers from censorship at the hands of the administration. Each year, soph-frosh, junior, and senior SING! scriptwriters are dismayed to find many of their lines and jokes cut from their scripts for inadequate reasons. Over time, this has resulted in a gradual dumbing-down of SING! since it is reduced to line after line of corny jokes, seemingly the only kind of humor and entertainment that can get past the administration’s tests for appropriateness.
“It changes the character. Students have less preparing time,” social studies teacher Matt Polazzo said of the administration’s tightened grip on SING!. “Shows are censored or controlled by the school. In general, it does seem that [SING!] has become a more controlled and more tame part of the culture.”
The STC, like SING!, has faced overzealous censorship. Many shows have had to omit important plot points, detracting from their overall quality—just recently, an important subplot about teenage pregnancy had to be cut from the STC’s production of “Grease” because it was deemed inappropriate for a high school audience.
Last year the administration shut down the annual STC One Acts festival, a series of four or five brief plays directed, performed, and usually written by students. A small group of students carried on the tradition outside of school, but it was not the same as it was within the school. Theater at Stuyvesant, an activity that fosters creativity and collaboration among students, has been egregiously stifled in recent years.
In tough economic times, fine arts are often the first to suffer when education costs need to be pared back. As budgets get tighter and cuts have to be made, it’s easy to fall into the mentality that, because arts are not technically as useful to society as math and science, they are worth less. This is a mindset that refuses to recognize certain realities. The arts fundamentally foster innovation, and creativity is not some insignificant ideal that needs to be put away when there’s an economy to build. It’s actually the opposite: ingenuity, now more than ever, is an economic necessity.
America’s average score on the standard Torrence test for creativity has been on a steady decline for the past 20 years, while a survey of the world’s top CEOs by IBM in 2012 found most business leaders saying that the most important quality for a business in today’s economy is creativity. Creativity is needed in business, science, and academia to encourage an innovation to thrive in the highly volatile economic world. A more immediate benefit of an arts education is a higher score on the SATs. The College Board’s research shows that students with four years of arts education outperform their classmates with only half a year by an average of 58 points on the verbal section and 38 points on the math section.
In addition, it’s not a coincidence that many of the most accomplished scientists and mathematicians have also had artistic hobbies and pursuits. This is because the arts not only foster creativity, but also offer students the ability to work with their hands, which, according to studies by renowned neurologist Frank Wilson, is an important aspect of psychological and intellectual development.
“I guess that’s the characteristic of our era, not just of our school: we’re moving away from [cultural] expressions,” Polazzo said. If this is true, Stuyvesant shouldn’t fit the mold of a contemporary school. Math-science school or not, a genuine arts education and experience must be nurtured at Stuy. A school that has bred so many Bio Olympiad and Intel finalists and Nobel laureates, and hopes to continue this tradition of creative achievement, can’t afford to let its students miss out on a genuine exploration of the arts.