Students and teachers evaluate the school’s 64-year-old art requirement


Erica Jiang and Lucy Peck

“It is important to have a variety of experiences through the school day to engage different parts of one’s mind,” Visual Arts teacher Mirrie Choi said. “From academic, to physical, to creative, each will activate you differently.” 

The Upper Division (UD) requires all students to complete two art credits — at least one-half in a studio/performance art and one-half in an appreciation in either music, visual arts, or theater and dance — to graduate. 

The school first implemented a requirement of one art credit in 1958. In 1980, it raised the requirement to one-and-a-half credits, according to the Archives. That requirement was raised again to two credits in 2016, according to the Program of Studies. 

Art is a critical part of what makes us human, psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said. “Dedicating a part of your day to understanding and appreciating the artistic aspects of our humanity is essential,” he said. Allowing for creativity, vitality, and feelings is crucial to a student’s education, he said. 

Having the capacity to reflect and express oneself, which students cultivate through learning about and making art, is fundamental to mental well-being, Pervil said. “For example, theater teaches you how to reflect on the feelings of others and empathize with them,” he said. “Having that capacity will make you a stronger, more well-rounded, more whole individual.”

The art requirements allow students to explore their passions, Choi said. “I love when students discover that they are actually great at art or really enjoy it, but never gave themselves the chance,” she said. “Especially if it is because they labeled themselves as ‘not an artist’ or not ‘into’ art.” 

Similarly, Visual Arts teacher Ron Logan finds art classes useful because they help develop students’ creative processes. A student undergoes this process when they formulate an idea in their head and turn it into any type of medium, whether a painting, a print, or a piece of writing, he said. “You can use the creative process in any subject area.” 

Like Logan, Music teacher Nathan Hetherington, who teaches music theory, believes that art classes benefit students. Music classes help students form a stronger emotional connection to the music they listen to, which can be very satisfying, he said. “[Art appreciations] directly complement other subjects,” he said. “We show connections to everyday things that students hear that they may not really think about.”

In a world immersed in the moving image, an appreciation of film techniques helps students become more culturally literate, Film/Video and Photography teacher Jordan Rathus said. “It’s easy to become passive viewers, missing out on opportunities to critically assess the biases and assumptions embedded in media.”

Music classes are important because they teach empathy, Music Department Chair Timothy Ho said. “In some subjects, you can have an idea about your own status in a class based on everyone else,” he said. “But, with music […] everybody has to subjugate their ego a bit to make this thing that you are all working towards work.” 

Likewise, in addition to singing, chorus teaches students important skills like collaboration, Ho said. “While we’re honing our individual skills, we’re also figuring out how to listen to each other and blend and how to make music.”

An art education includes thinking outside of the box and understanding other points of view, which is the foundation of ethics and social awareness, Visual Arts Department Chair Dr. Anna Hetherington said. In this way, art education promotes individual understanding and reflection.

Theater teacher Benjamin Posner, who teaches History of American Musical Theater, believes that taking an art elective expands students’ minds and opens them up to a new kind of self-expression that they may not have known before, he said

Similarly, art electives add variety to students’ days, helping them take a moment to appreciate something beautiful, Posner said. “It gives you some life and sustenance for your soul.” Through art classes, Posner hopes students find another thing in life to enjoy, he said.

Taking art classes also makes students more appreciative of the effort that goes into creating art, Music teacher Alan Bates said. “Then, when they see a band, they’ll go ‘wow, these people must have rehearsed forever to be able to play like that’ or ‘this theater group must have put in a lot of time to be able to produce this production,’” he said.

Art classes can also teach perseverance, Choi said. “For example, if a sculpture falls apart, or a print decides to have a life of its own, you can discover an entirely new way of working that you would not have found otherwise.”

The art requirement is necessary, Bates said. Without the requirement, some students might never take an art class at the school, thinking that it is not necessary because it will not help a student get into college, he said. “To be a well-rounded person, everybody should experience all different types of art and theater, dance, and music.” 

Likewise, Posner thinks both the appreciation and the studio art requirements are important, he said. For example, some people may not want to be on stage, but can appreciate theater as a spectator, so they can still take part in theater by taking classes such as History of American Musical Theater. “I’m not a painter, but when I see someone drawing something, it’s like alchemy — I love it,” he said.

While Ho strongly believes in the art requirement, he recognizes some of the drawbacks. “Every Horace Mann student wants to do everything, so the art requirement might limit the ability of someone who isn’t an artist to do something else,” he said.  

Alara Yilmaz (11) prefers computer science classes to arts classes, but she still sees the value in the arts courses. “I’ve taken one computer science class each year so it doesn’t interfere with the art requirement,” she said. “My computer science classes focus on how to code and learning new skills, whereas in art classes, I have time to create projects and do hands-on work.”

Julia Werdiger (11) took contemporary art history in ninth grade both to meet the art appreciation credit and to learn more about a subject she was interested in, she said. “I see art everywhere, so learning the history and learning how to analyze [art] appealed to me.” She has found the information she learned in the class useful when going to museums and analyzing artwork, she said. Werdiger has not taken any appreciation credits since ninth grade, but may in the future.

For Werdiger, the art requirement is important because it helps her explore new topics, she said. “I probably wouldn’t have taken a lot of art classes if it wasn’t a requirement, and now I get to,” she said. “The art classes add a break to the academic aspect of the school and really balances the day.”

Ceramics was Werdiger’s favorite art class she took, she said. “It was a lot of hands-on, actually touching the clay and making different shapes and forms,” she said. “It was really different from the academic classes where you’re sitting at a desk and writing and listening.” 

Sophie Pietrzak (11), who took Film History 1, believes the class has increased her appreciation for the films she watches outside of school, she said. “When I’m watching movies at home, I notice the small details that the director chose and I am able to see how the film techniques affect the storyline and how I perceive the plot,” she said. 

As a musician, Stephanie Lee (11) thinks that art classes are beneficial for students’ education as they differ from standard core subjects. However, the art requirement for both one appreciation and one performance is unnecessary, she said. Lee has taken both Orchestra and Sinfonietta since freshman year, and had to take music theory last year to fulfill her art appreciation credit, she said. “It takes away from the point of learning and enjoying the class without knowing you are there just for the credit when you need to take a certain class just to meet the performance or appreciation requirement.”

Miller Harris (12) enjoys the Orchestra classes he has taken for his seven years in the UD and Middle Division. “I’ve learned to enjoy that part of my day,” he said. “My orchestra class is H period and it’s a nice end to the day.”  

However, Harris can envision instances when the requirement would be troublesome. “Sometimes, when seniors have to take art classes senior year, that can lead to an overloaded schedule,” he said. Last year, for instance, Harris did not have lunch every other day because of his art class, he said. “But, my art teacher was understanding about getting food.”

Some students struggle to squeeze art classes into their schedules, like Emma Chang (10). “I want to go on a computer science track, in addition to participating in both Glee Club and Treble Choir, so I will have to wait to complete my other art requirements.” 

Chang appreciates the arts requirement because it forces students to expose themselves to different forms of art that they may not have previously tried, she said. However, students already pursuing certain arts should not be forced to take classes they are not interested in just to fill a requirement.

Because of the requirement, there are students with varying levels of interest in each art class, Werdiger said. While she recognizes this, she does not think it detracts from the learning experience, she said.“Everyone learns together at an introductory level and if you want to keep pursuing the class, you can take a higher level version.” 

Logan is happy that all types of art are taken seriously at the school. “A lot of schools do not have the arts to the same extent that we have here,” he said. “So, I feel that we are really lucky that the school supports the endeavor of learning about the arts.”

There are infinite advantages to requiring arts credits, Dr. Hetherington said. “Across all disciplines, Horace Mann teaches critical thinking, and art is a part of that cohesive goal,” she said. “There appears to be less of a stress for many students in our classes about what grades they achieve, so they might feel they can truly learn for the joy and sake of learning in a discipline that is not necessarily in the foreground of their main interests.” 

Ultimately, Dr. Hetherington wishes that art credits were required for every year of high school, but she understands that students do have broad interests. “My wish is that students can feel like they can take more art electives without sacrificing anything,” she said. 

Mr. Hetherington also sees the art requirements as a sign that the school truly believes in the importance of art to every student, he said. “There shouldn’t be less art credit requirements, but I wouldn’t protest if there were more.”

Students should be able to experience a variety of art electives with multiple teachers to cultivate their appreciation for art, Rathus said. “Art is an unquantifiable element that brings joy and richness into our lives.”