Arts Education and Bullying

Posted by Merryl Goldberg, Apr 07, 2010 8 comments

Alright - if we had mandatory arts education we would have far less bullying. I honestly think this is true. There's been a lot of press abut bullying recently - and I'm glad there is. Bullying is a topic that has emerged in nearly every middle and high school setting in the schools with which we have residency programs using the arts. I've dealt with bullying as a parent of an elementary school age child who has been bullied this year; and sadly, as a young child myself, I was relentlessly bullied when our family moved when I was in the 4th grade. I'll never forget it - and it very much shaped who I am today and how I perceive the world and my role in it.

Bullying is essentially about power - power over others. It takes many forms such as physical or verbal abuse, or targeted and relentless teasing. It lingers especially when nothing is done to stop it, and the consequences for the targeted individuals can be (and often are) devastating. 

Power is something that we all naturally seek - whether it be power over others, power with others, or a need to feel empowered. It has something in common with musical performing - for a quality of performance is power. My dissertation uncovered the differences between playing music and performing. I became interested in the topic when my music students could play beautifully in rehearsals  but  then freeze on a stage. I interviewed professional musicians and asked them to tell me the differences they understood between playing and performing. All performers agreed - playing was the core of performing - so then the question became - why perform?

There were several reasons musicians decided to perform and one major reason was power - power over audience, power with other musicians, and it was self-empowering. Being on the stage - indeed "having the stage" is quite a powerful position to be in. You can make people feel things, move, dance, influence their moods. If you have an agenda, such as teaching about a culture through music, you have a captive audience. Feeling the power with other musicians as you turn notes into music is powerful. When playing with others, you can push each other to greater musical heights, improvise new ideas, and feel the joy of working closely to make  great music. And, the act of performing itself is quite empowering. Watch a group of kids successfully perform a piece of music and you will have some insight into their sense of confidence, and achievement - as well as see their level of self esteem blossom.

Students need an outlet for feeling powerful - and if they aren't getting it in school or in extracurricular activities, it will and does find an outlet - most likely a negative outlet such as bullying. If the federal government really wants to reform education, then I believe a focus on reshaping what we  "do" during the school day is ultimately far more important than an emphasis on "what" to learn.We need to get kids working together, learning about each other, and learning the skills associated with patience, respect, and tolerance. I know that arts are not the answer to bullying - but it is certainly  part of the solution.

8 responses for Arts Education and Bullying


Dinesh Kumar says
April 25, 2010 at 12:03 am

“Face of art studies”

Material science has got various many other subjects today like genetics science, nano-technology etc. But art subjects cannot grow or develop in right direction in today’s condition. Today our socio-political system is completely based on profit. And art has to be beautiful. Without any real beauty art cannot be created. A beautiful art can be great when it is social and society depends on truth. Now we can understand the objective problem faced by a developing study in art that there is a condition in art that if art has to grow in great then it has to be not only beautiful but also it has to be socially correct and profit making is at all not correct socially. That is why studies in art cannot grow and develop in right direction. Here we must understand that scientific social studies can never grow and develop in the right direction on the basis of untruth. Here we must understand that society never upholds lie in the sphere of knowledge.
And secondly subjectivity of art studies is also in danger. Here reason is that art never exists without real pleasure and real pleasure can never come out of an ugly way. In today’s society where exploitation of man by man is there and the common men’s psychology is made for eat, drink and be married, which is totally ugly then how the real pleasure can take place in this profit motive nature of system of our society? It has vanished all the ways of development of art studies today.

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Wanda Oberdorfer says
April 17, 2010 at 3:59 pm

On the stage (as actors), back stage (as artistic designers, set construction crew and tech crew), or under the stage (as musicians in the orchestra pit) theater serves as the great "equalizer." When I have students tell me, "I would never in my entire school years have thought that I would carry on a conversation with, much less become friends with "Mary/John. And we would never have had this chance to get to know each other if we had not done the play." It's all about creating situations that allow them to communicate all their questions about the struggle of being human in a safe place, where the victims and the perpetrators of harm are individuals "outside" of themselves (characters in the script) is cathartic. When you translate human suffering and victory through an artistic form, you translate it into a language that is safe that communicates to each individual on such a personal, visceral level. We have shared something so personal that a very special bonding happens. And I love to see students find that "ahhh" moment when they realize they have evolved beyond prejudice/bias/fear of the unknown to a place where they can be with people who are different and celebrate their differences without fear, without a need to be the one in power....I'm a believer.

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April 08, 2010 at 7:58 pm

We are in the midst of finishing a documentary about bullying (paticularly of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students), and it is amazing the difference in the schools that embrace the arts. Not only when it comes to lgbt youth issues, but in general campuses with arts programs seem to be more open to culture, religious differences, differently abled people, etc. This seems to lead to a more peaceful learning environment.

I was particularly impressed with the students who organized a peaceful "sing-in" at Gunn High School when the Kansas hate group known as the Westboro Baptist Church announced they would picket Bay Area schools and Jewish institutions. (You can watch the video on YouTube

The protesters arrived at the school to find hundreds of students, parents, teachers and community members singing and letting them know that they do not tolerate hate.

I also noticed a peaceful campus environment at High Tech High in San Diego. Maybe it's because they have reshaped what students do at school (it's a project based school) and not only focus on what they learn, as you mention in your post.

Great article Merryl, thank you!

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April 09, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Hello, This topic is potentially far-reaching. However, we need to view art and play in terms of media and energy. Play and art-based media carry energy that can be harnessed and applied for mass uses. This is a mass population issue requiring mass communication solutions. Puppetools and Play Language represent a ways to solve the problem of advancing the integration of the arts into the learning culture. Bullying would be all but eradicated in a culture warmed and energized (civilized) by the nutrients of play.

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Carolyn Funes says
April 08, 2010 at 11:48 am

Yes, the arts has the power to civilize us whether it is the empowerment that comes from playing and performing music or the heart/mind/soul spaces that are filled when we wrestle creatively with words or images. When those spaces are filled that way, it limits the space for darkness.

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Carolyn Funes says
April 08, 2010 at 11:49 am

PS. Thank you again Merryl Goldberg for your wisdom.

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April 07, 2010 at 6:05 pm

I feel close to this, and I'm grateful that you are writing about it. I have observed that high school students who cultivate their artistic selves are often more open and accepting of difference than their peers. A trusty colleague theorizes that the creative impulse and the destructive impulse are balanced on a razor's edge, especially when we are adolescents. I think it's pretty clear that a lot of teenage bullying comes out of boredom. If so, your conclusion that we should be focusing on what we do during the school day, rather than exclusively focusing on what we learn, makes sense. I hope the funders and policy-makers agree. In any case, bullying continues into adulthood, and maybe we should fix ourselves first. Children probably learn it from us.

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April 07, 2010 at 6:24 pm

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