When I was just a wee little preschooler, I was desperately trying to find my place in a world that was far too big and confusing to a toddler. My insecurities were many, my confidence was minimal, and I just was not yet comfortable in my own skin. My only therapy at the time (which I didn’t know was therapy) occurred during the only time in school when I could express myself both emotionally and creatively: our art time. In painting and drawing, I learned to express myself; I learned to be creative and, most importantly, I learned that sometimes it is okay to draw outside the lines. Only through art was I able to express myself both creatively and emotionally, and it opened my mind and my heart in ways that I was not aware of at the time.
Though I now teach history, which may come as a surprise, it was my time and talents in art that helped mold me into the nationally recognized educator that I am today. I have been humbled by all the attention I have received for my innovative and creative methods. But, the irony is that my successes teaching history are mainly achieved by incorporating strategies that are more likely to be found in an art class. From drawing to photography to music, using artistic means not only helps my students understand history, but it nurtures their creativity and imagination at the same time. History is my passion and is necessary to understand why things are; similarly, math and the sciences are necessary to explain why things are, but, it is the subject of the arts that is necessary to create and envision how things could be.
My title suggests that I am under the impression that getting rid of the arts would undermine the very vision our founding fathers had for America… and of this I am certain. This was a fact I came to find during my studies in college. I was attempting to understand “What guiding elements led our founders to come up with such a unique vision at the time?” Also, though they were all incredibly different in beliefs, “What common principles and passions did they all have in common?” Time after time, my research led me to the fact that all the founders, even Washington who was not as formally educated as the others, had love, respect and passion for philosophy, art and music, three subjects that are the basis for all humanities courses.
George Washington believed the arts should be at the foundation of an enlightened nation. In a letter to a friend in 1781, Washington plainly wrote:
The arts and sciences essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.
Washington’s love for the arts was not the exception amongst the other founders but, in fact, was the norm. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams went into great detail about why he was so committed to the Revolution, and what he hoped his children and grandchildren would gain from his sacrifice:
… I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy… in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture…
In 1780, during some of the most crucial years of the Revolution, John and Sam Adams, and John Hancock felt it necessary to charter an academy in Cambridge, even before America won its independence. It seems obvious that only a military academy would be that important to create in the midst of a war, but it was not a military academy. In fact, they founded the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, one of the most prestigious societies of research and study in the United States. Adams penned the Academy’s motto himself; it read “To cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” Its honorary first class in 1781 included Ben Franklin and George Washington. The fact that the founding fathers chartered an academy focusing on the arts in a country which still was not technically theirs should be definitive proof how fundamental they felt the arts were to an enlightened nation.
In his later years, Washington continued to make sure the arts were at the center of education, and makes this very clear in a letter he wrote in 1796 to a trustee of the newly chartered Washington Academy (which would eventually become Washington and Lee University):
To promote literature in this rising empire, and to encourage the arts, have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart. I can’t imagine that there is another way to interpret that passage or its meaning.
The world we live is far different than the world in which our founding fathers did. Though the world has changed greatly, the arts (which include music, painting and drama) have remained constant over time. With a few additions due to technology, such as photography, film and even the synthesizer in music, the founders would not have a problem identifying the arts of today. You may argue whether Washington would prefer Ghost: The Musical over The Lion King, whether Adams would care for the Dali’s surrealist painting style or Picasso’s cubism, whether Franklin would think Warhol’s photographs are nonsense, or even if Jefferson would prefer the music of Nicki Minaj over Taylor Swift. However, there should be no arguing that they believed the arts were as important to the development and growth of an enlightened country as science and philosophy.
It can be argued with good reason that, without the arts, America would lose the very creative and free thinking spirit that has come to define us since our conception. Though America outsources its labor and production to various countries such as India and China, it is safe to say that American ingenuity and creativity is still alive and strong. If our goal as a nation is to become like the very nations to which we outsource our work (because they tend to dominate in math and science and not creativity), politicians and school boards are making that prophecy come true. By eliminating the arts, we are eliminating the most unique and successful characteristic that has separated Americans from the rest of the world since our founding, which is why the founding fathers immediately attempted to make the arts the foundation of their creative experiment.
Adams, John. “Letter to Abigail Adams 12 May. 1780.” The Quotable Founding Fathers. 2008. Fall River Press. New York, NY.
American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 2012
Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to James Madison 20 September. 1780. The Quotable Founding Fathers. New York: Fall River Press, 2008.
Washington, George. “Letter to Joseph Willard 22 March. 1781.” The Quotable Founding Fathers. New York: Fall River Press, 2008.
Washington, George.”Letter to Trustee of Washington Academy 17 June. 1798.” The Quotable Founding Fathers. New York: Fall River Press, 2008.
Nicholas Ferroni is a revered educator and historian who mentors his mostly lower-income students with deep personal commitment and care. This former actor turned teacher, writer, and host was recently named one of the 100 most influential people in America for his commitment to education reform as well as developing a “Teach the Truth” campaign to incorporate more minority figures and groups into the high school social studies curriculum. Nick was also named one of Men’s Fitness Magazine’s “25 Fittest Men in the World,” an honor generally reserved for prominent athletes and actors. He has received national attention by numerous educators and doctors for his unique and innovative methodology in successfully reaching contemporary and urban students, and has been featured in various academic and scholarly journals. Nick is currently developing two history show pilots, one of which he will be hosting, and is currently working on his celebrity charity book titled The Awkward Album, which will reveal some of our most beloved celebrities’ awkward and insecure moments during their childhood, and show every child that everyone (including our most beautiful celebrities) goes through awkward and insecure moments in their youth. You can follow Nicholas Ferroni on Twitter @NicholasFerroni.