I view with a more than jaded eye every report that suggests that we have to, no matter what, provide something to kids in school. We have to have an hour a day of gym or some kind of movement, we have to have music education, we have to have field trips or longer nutrition breaks so kids can chew slower, or we have to have smaller classrooms or else it is too hard to learn.
"Or what?" is my first thought, although in economist-speak, what I really wonder about is the "opportunity cost" of those things. As every good first-year economics student knows, when you decide to do something or pay for something, you are effectively trading off doing or paying for something else.
Given that every program we choose to have in a school has a trade-off against one that we cannot have (even if you could pay for everything, which North American education budgets cannot, there is still a time constraint in a student's day), to make some comparisons between programs means knowing what you get out of each. That's why I was interested in a U.S. study that showed a nice payoff, in the form of various skills, to exposing students to arts through that tried-and-true educational favourite: The field trip.
In an experiment done in Arkansas, students went on a field trip to a new museum (financed with Wal-Mart money, in case that makes a difference to you) and were then monitored for their responses to a range of questions a few weeks later. The results were compared with those of a control group that didn't visit the museum. The researchers' basic conclusion: "Field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture."
Translation: Kids who go to museums get more than just the chance to skip school for the day.
It bodes well for supporting field trips, particularly since the researchers found the payoff to be greatest for students who came from the lowest-income backgrounds.
Still, you could argue that you could get the same results if parents just took their kids to museums on the weekends, and let the schools teach them math (call me crazy, but I see that as important too) during the week. But we know that not every parent is going to cart his or her kids off to culturally enhancing activities on their own time. Though interestingly, the Arkansas study did find that once kids had been to a museum themselves, they were more likely to drag their parents back (albeit with free passes in the experiment).
So are field trips to art museums a good investment from an economic point of view? Let's say a cautious "yes" to that one. Heading into the next lap of global economic activity, we know that if we are going to manage anything like growth comparable to what we have seen over the past hundred years or so, we are going to have to boost innovation, creativity and productivity. That means going to museums is a good idea – provided of course, that everyone catches up on their math when they get back to class.
Linda Nazareth is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Her book Economorphics: The Trends Changing Today into Tomorrow will be published by Relentless Press in January, 2014. www.economorphics.com