A Sense of Agency and Creation Through the Arts

Girl walking among tall treesIn my post Why Support the Arts? I noted six points summarized from an article “Willingham: Six Practical Reasons Why Arts Education is Not a Mere Luxury” (Washington Post, November 23, 2009) by cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. Development psychologist Jerry Kagan presented these points during a 2009 conference called “Neuroeducation: Learning, Arts and the Brain.” This post addresses the second point: The arts offer that sense of agency, of creation.

Like many parents today, we allowed ourselves to be haunted by the ghost of ‘what if.'”

Kagan observed that today’s children have “very little sense of ‘agency’— the sense that they undertake activities that, however small, have an impact on the world.” As a child he had the autonomy to explore his hometown on his own. But this is something that many parents today do not allow. “When not exploring, my activities were necessarily of my own design, whereas children today typically watch television or roam the internet, activities that are frequently passive and which encourage conformity.” The arts, Kagan argues, offer that sense of agency and open avenues for creation.

I find Kagen’s points here to be thought-provoking. As the father of two children, I have tried hard to avoid the cliché incantations of how hard my life was as a youth—when actually, compared to the life of my depression-era grandfather, my youth was a cake-walk. I never trudged miles to school barefooted and in the snow, nor did I have to work long hard hours on a farm for pennies day. My parents were able to provide a stable setting for me and my siblings where we could readily explore our worlds with relative freedom and autonomy.

My wife and I were never comfortable with allowing total freedom of exploration for our two children. Like many parents today, we allowed ourselves to be haunted by the ghost of “what if” and the potential horrors that would inevitably befall a child left alone to explore much beyond a one-block radius from our house–or beyond eye- and ear-shot. But exploration can be accomplished in multiple ways. I am fortunate enough to be married to one of the most creative people I know, and she instilled a life-long sense of wonder and awe in our children through a multitude of art projects, construction of imagined worlds, environments and scale models, long hikes, bike rides, snow fort building, scrapbooking, etc. Our children are completely at home in a museum and a public library and have suffered through their share of historic homes and dusty Civil War forts.

So, none the worse for wear are we. And the arts, and I hope a sense of agency, are alive and well!

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