Harvard President Drew Faust recently wrote of students overlooking the benefit of following their “interest in art or linguistics or any of the other humanity disciplines.” The trend towards employable subjects like math and science is reflected in decisions of college students as well as decision-making in primary and secondary schools. Funds have been cut in more than 80 percent of U.S. school districts since 2008. The very first programs to go are often disciplines such as music, art and foreign language.
The president of Harvard is not alone in her concern. Groundbreaking work of cognitive neuroscientists reveals what we think are “extras” are central to strengthening our minds. Studying Mandarin or music as a child might do more for your adult brain and long-term economic prospects than studying biology.
Take music as an example. A study by Virginia Penhune at Concordia University shows that musical training, particularly instrumental training, produces long lasting changes in motor abilities and brain structure. The earlier a child starts instrumental training, the stronger the connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. These changes last into adulthood and are proven to affect the ability to listen and communicate as an adult. Nina Krauss, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, just released a study that older adults who took music lessons at a young age can process the sounds of speech faster than those who did not, even if they haven’t picked up an instrument in 40 years.
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These traits, found in musicians, are also common among world-class athletes and top-level managers. Is it a coincidence that Condoleeza Rice (piano), Alan Greenspan (jazz clarinet), Paul Allen (guitar), James Wolfensohn (cello) all studied music for years as children? Perhaps, but they all attribute current success, in part, to their musical training. Science backs that up. Children (and even adults) who play an instrument 30 minutes a week over the course of a little over a year have more highly developed brains.
The same is true for foreign language, often one of the first programs to go in financially strapped schools. Studying a second language restructures the brain which lasts into adulthood. The cortex, which undergoes the greatest changes when a second language is learned during childhood, influences thought and consciousness. Even memory is impacted according to a new joint study by the The Neuro at McGill University and Oxford University.
How about physical education? While further afield from the humanities, new research reveals children who get aerobic exercise transform their brains due to a protein that is elevated during exercise acting as a sort of “miracle-gro.” Exercise matters deeply for cognitive development for kids.
Naperville School District in Illinois, who experimented with a mandatory mile run at the very start of the school day, is a prime example. Kids in the Naperville School District not only outperformed neighboring districts, but whole countries. The eighth grade Naperville students that took the an international science test finished ahead of Singapore! As a comparison, U.S. students typically rank 18th in the world. They credit much of their academic results to a fitness-based physical education program. Yet only 6 percent of U.S. schools have physical education classes 5 times a week. In addition, 20 percent of U.S. elementary schools abolished recess in favor of increased classroom time to improve student achievement. Students who exercise, studies have shown, have better concentration and are better team players both in and out of the classroom.
Concentration, strong recall skills, evolved communication skills, and being a good team player are just a few of the benefits research shows music, foreign language and physical education have on a developing mind. To me, that list reads as one I might put together for a model employee. Shortsightedness from parents who encourage our college-age children to focus on an "employable" major, or cutting school funding, has long-term implications. If we are truly care about the future of our kids and our country, we will think twice before cutting programs that will dwarf their (and our) potential.