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VIEWPOINT: Thoughts on gun violence, gender and arts schools

by Mike Boos

With the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a national debate is raging over what to do. Is it possible we are truly ready to enact meaningful gun control laws and move beyond patronizing thoughts and prayers, and feigned references to mental health? The political odds are still stacked against that.

There are important steps to be taken, steps which most other advanced nations seem to have already figured out, like stricter gun laws, including universal background checks and banning civilian access to weapons of war.

As Sisyphean a task as it may seem, it is my belief we must get started on a holistic, bottom up approach. I ask that we also consider a couple of far less frequently discussed topics, which I believe have had a profound, long term impact not only on gun violence, but on the overall wellness of our nation: gender and the arts.

Our society is fractured, and nowhere is it more evident than in the preponderance of mass shootings perpetrated almost exclusively by boys and men. Ninety percent of all murders are committed by men and an astounding 97 percent of mass shooters are male. Why is this? Is it nature or nurture? Much research suggests that it is both. What can be done?

There is not much I suppose we can do about genetics, other than be aware of how they relate to external forces, and emphasize those forces that encourage less sociopathic behavior. For example, British neuroscientist James Fallon discovered almost by accident he had the same brain and genetic abnormalities of the sociopaths he had been studying and believes that his childhood helped prevent him from becoming a violent criminal.

“I was loved, and that protected me,” he says.

There are however, many things we can do about the nurture part of the equation, but there just isn’t enough space here to get to most of them.

So let’s start with the arts.

Perhaps more than any other segments of school curriculum, the arts—music, dance, drama and the visual arts—have been hit hard. Partly because of economics and partly because of a cultural mind set that views the arts as non-academic and therefore a luxury. Arts funding has been cut back and cut out of many public schools. These cuts have come against the backdrop of the decade-long emphasis on math and reading as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law and our own state’s Public School Accountability Act.

In fact, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, one-third of the district’s 345 arts teachers were let go between 2008 and 2012 and arts offerings for half of K-5 students were reduced to zero.

For a whole generation of American children, the arts have been relegated to “extra-curricular” status, in favor of more “academic, knowledge-based” subjects. Now I’ve got nothing against these other subjects, which are also hampered by certain, anti-public school, anti-science, fundamentalist forces, but for kids to be educated in the visual and performing arts, we rely on parent-funded after-school enrichment courses, and private lessons which many families simply can’t afford. This has been a costly mistake.

I understand that correlation does not prove causation, and I am not saying that de-emphasizing the arts causes boys and men to become mass shooters, as this problem is much more complicated than that, but the trend lines are retrograde inversions of one another.

Without robust, fully integrated arts programs in our schools, we are a more toxic society, less creative and empathetic, a people less able to peacefully express our emotions. We are also less competitive as a work force.

Consider the comments of Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba: “We cannot teach our kids to compete with machines.” We must change our education system, that is “teach and learn what the machines cannot do...learn values, independent thinking, believing...sports, music, painting.”

Yet, a longitudinal study by NASA shows our educational system seems designed to stifle the very thing our children will need most to compete: creativity. They found that divergent thinking, that is imagination, used for generating new possibilities, was systematically discouraged over convergent thinking, which involves making a judgment, a decision, testing, criticizing or evaluating something.

Creative thinkers have more options for problem solving, conflict resolution and managing stress and anger. Our society, children and boys in particular, need art and music, theater, movement and creative writing in their lives, from pre-school and elementary grades through middle and high school. They need them as much, or more, than the so-called “academic” subjects, especially early on.

The arts are a window into the emotional wellness of children and can be employed to help them become well adjusted adults. The can be used to identify boys at risk of falling into the profile group from which young murderers come and provide additional tools for educators to guide them toward a more socially successful path through middle and high schools.

The arts are needed in our schools because of the benefits they provide all children when integrated into the existing curriculum. Studies show children will learn subject matter more deeply and a broader population will be reached by addressing the multiple learning modalities that are overlooked in many traditional classrooms. These children develop confidence and self esteem, maximizing their opportunities for success as they become adults.

And finally, whether or not children grow up to be artists, actors, musicians or writers, they will be better citizens, more empathetic and creative, with an understanding of aesthetics that will make our communities safer and more beautiful places to live.