The latest international test scores of American students and adults give low marks in reading, problem-solving, and, especially, math. It appears we are still nowhere near our peers in Tokyo, Shanghai, or Helsinki. This has triggered a familiar debate between those seeking comprehensive education reform and others who would rather point out our creative strengths. However, both sides of the debate miss the role the arts play in fostering the skills our economy really needs.

Tests run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of the world’s wealthiest nations, show sobering results for the United States almost every year.  The performance of 15-year-olds is below the OECD average according to an assessment released on December 3, and the first survey of adult skills released in October showed that Americans are even further behind their peers in Japan, Norway, and Germany in terms of literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving.

As a consequence, the national conversation has turned toward improving STEM education, short for science, technical education, and math. President Obama has even pointed out other countries’ success in providing their students these basic skills. In last year’s State of the Union address, he singled out the success of Germany’s dual education system for “graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree” and has recently announced a $100 million grant competition for innovative schools that can provide industry-relevant skills.

But knowing how to read, write, and count is only part of the picture. And having solid technical qualifications does not guarantee career success. An IBM study last year showed that a majority of the 1,700 CEOs surveyed considered interpersonal skills like teamwork, communication, and flexibility as essential for employees. These “soft skills” can significantly affect firms’ bottom line.

They are also part of learning an art. During a fellowship year in Germany, I had the chance to play in a small orchestra in Berlin (Neuköllner Serenade) and serve as concertmaster for a community symphony in Stuttgart (Stuttgarter Orchesterverein). I noticed that most of my colleagues had full-time professional careers—from academics in computer science to Mercedes engineers. Music was not just a hobby, but played a central role in the success of their professional lives.

Study after study shows the important connection between learning an art form and learning other skills like math, languages, or even basic interpersonal skills. While playing Mozart to your child will not turn them into a genius, musical training early in life has been shown to have important impacts on non-music areas of performance well into adulthood, according to a recent study in the The Journal of Neuroscience. As a boy, my mathematician parents encouraged me to learn the violin and perform with others like their Norwegian-born colleague—a musical prodigy and authority in functional analysis who had solved fundamental problems in his field while touring in opera houses across Europe.

Last fall at the Kennedy Center, the American cellist Yo-Yo Ma spoke convincingly about this connection between the arts and skill development. Art can directly stimulate the economy, since the collaborative and listening skills needed to perform music are important to almost every career and reinforce learning in other areas. Thus, Mr. Ma is an advocate for including the arts in the public discussion on science, technical education, and math—turning STEM into STEAM.

Yet the arts are struggling in the United States. Federal support for all arts programming is just under $7 per citizen and, while budget cuts have affected all public institutions, some like the National Endowment for the Arts have been disproportionately affected—a current bill cuts funding to levels not seen since 1974. The downward trend in private donations for the arts has also led to serious financial trouble for small orchestras throughout the country and valued professional institutions such as the San Francisco Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, and the Philadelphia Philharmonic.

In contrast, German citizens pay a relatively high $50 a year per person, but their cultural institutions are thriving. The capital of Berlin is home to some six professional orchestras and several operas; smaller amateur groups like the ones I performed with also benefit from this support. As a result, Berlin has already turned itself into a hub for creative young artists and musicians, attracting some of Europe’s most innovative start-up companies. Germany’s capital might not yet match Silicon Valley as a center for innovation, but it has found a different set of ingredients for success.

Underlying Germany’s success is sustained public support for both technical education and the arts. Many of that country’s institutions are funded in good times and bad—an approach that reassures both companies investing in their workforce and cultural foundations that support new art. The sustained promotion of both is considered vital to the national interest.

Unfortunately, the economic argument for government support for the arts is heard less often than the argument against it in the United States. Why should the government spend money on something that Americans would gladly spend money on themselves through donations or ticket sales?  After all, we already export nearly $70 billion in arts goods a year. Yet this assumes that art is only valuable if it can be easily commoditized like a movie, a painting sold at auction, or the latest pop album.

We must take into account that support for the arts also fosters the skills our society needs. By focusing exclusively on reading, math, and problem-solving skills, we have ignored the interpersonal skills that we value the most in our colleagues and employees. This is not promoting “art for art’s sake,” but for the sake of the country.

Parke T. Nicholson is the Senior Research Program Associate at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and a co-founder of Classical Revolution DC.

  • K Bledowski

    If art is a public good with (positive) external effects on society, then there is a role for government to play if the marketplace fails. The $7 vs. $50 input figures for the U.S. and Germany omit the effect of private funding. A better measure is output because it relates more directly to demand, which ought to be the ultimate yardstick. I assume Germany shines regardless. Its citizens demand more arts and get more arts per capita than American consumers do.

    The right focus should then be on arts education (a clear determinant of future demand) rather than on public support for the arts as such. The author is on the right track but how do you raise public consciousness of this link? The correlation with labor productivity, civility, and social cohesion may be all out there and empirically documented but how do you move the needle on shifting curricula? It’s a tough sell when education is largely decentralized. Germany has had a long and rich tradition in performing arts going back centuries. They have a competitive advantage going forward with their society consuming music, theater, and other arts in large numbers. Any change in the United States is bound to be slow at best of times.