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Why Our Kids Need Drama

We can't afford the costs of eliminating the arts from young people's lives.

I’m pleased to have my colleague Peter Smagorinsky, PhD. as guest columnist. Peter is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia. In addition to his academic writing, he is a frequent Op-Ed contributor to newspapers and magazines, including the Atlantic Journal-Constitution. You can find them at 


by Peter Smagorinsky

The kind of psychology that’s practiced in schools is concerned with and almost exclusively focused on the mind of the individual student. I’d like to see a more expansive psychology that takes into account the social environment of human development become more widespread. There is such a psychology—the field of cultural psychology—which is concerned with human development in its historical, cultural, and social contexts.

This different orientation to psychology produces a different emphasis for promoting the well-being of young people. A cultural psychology emphasizes the setting of human development. In other words, it’s be less concerned with “social, emotional, and behavioral problems” of individuals, and more concerned with whole environments.

In other writing, I have offered the metaphor of a “positive social updraft” to characterize what is available when attention is shifted from individuals to groups, particularly for kids considered to be social or cultural outsiders who might otherwise be limited in opportunities for social participation. This metaphor may be applied to engagement in many pursuits, from participants in video game communities to those who take part in youth music programs.

The updraft metaphor comes from the process of wind currents such as those that are swept up a chimney. These drafts have an upward motion that catches other elements and carries them along. A social updraft provides cultural mediational means that allow people to become fully involved in significant cultural activity that brings them a feeling of social belonging.

Educational policymakers are now obsessed with standardized tests as the measure of educational quality, but these individualized markers of achievement—so dubious to begin with—miss out on what makes schools special places in human communities. What makes schools special places follows from relationships, from the social dimensions in which these positive updrafts become available.

These updrafts can provide fragile young people, particularly those whose personalities do not conform to mainstream expectations, with the social currents that give them a feeling of belonging and affiliation such that they persist. That is, they might find their most compelling reason to be in school to be their involvement in a sport, in theater, in a music program; and this involvement gives their attendance in classes a broader purpose and motivation.

Arts are often offered as a frivolous extra that can be eliminated when money is tight, because of its perceived lack of utilitarian value. As Hank Huckaby, Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, has infamously stated, jobs in society go unfilled “because students are studying the wrong things. . .  If you can't get a job, and you majored in drama, there's probably a reason."

I argue, in contrast, that the co-curricular activities that Chancellor Huckaby finds irrelevant in fact provide critical workforce preparation. They do so because they emphasize what is known as the “soft skills” that are involved in establishing and maintaining social relationships. These skills often involve emotional regulation and the ability to work in group settings, common qualities identified by business executives in defining a productive workforce.

The term “soft” suggests skills of lesser value. The fact that relationships have historically been considered the domain of women has given them less status in what remains a male-dominated society, standing a distant second to the “hard” technical expertise valorized in current school reform policies. I would argue the opposite: that these relational skills are among the most essential abilities that a student can learn in school, not only for workforce preparation but in terms of how young people feel about school and thus how willingly they engage with its policies and people. 

Drama programs, for instance, can help young people learn how to work cohesively as a team. Producing a play involves a great deal of cooperation among people of diverse abilities, contributions, and roles, each essential to the ultimate public performance. It often attracts young people who have difficulty fitting in with middle-of-the-road school social life. Participation in the whole of the theatrical production—the rehearsals, the set design and construction, the lighting, the music, the support crew—can provide the positive social updraft that can help youth overcome the feelings of alienation fostered by the impersonal emphasis on test scores. These individualized, emotionally vacuous measures of human value, imposed by outsiders from the policy world, can make school an intimidating and dispiriting place. 

Individual psychologies can infer these needs, but remain focused on the single student struggling with social, emotional, and behavioral problems that inhibit academic achievement as measured by individual scores on tests administered under the most callous of conditions. In contrast, a social or cultural psychology shifts attention to the group and its goals, tools, and practices. 

Attention shifts to how the whole of the social setting provides conditions and activities through which young people can feel included, cared for, valued, and appreciated—not just for who they are, but for how they contribute to a large and complex project. This activity’s social value radiates out to the broader community as friends, family, and those looking for an evening of entertainment and enlightenment attend performances and thus themselves develop stronger relationships with the school institution.

Are the arts worth funding in times of educational funding crises? I would ask a very different question: Can we afford the cost of eliminating them?