Are Smart People Drawn to the Arts or Does Arts Training Make People Smarter?

I’m going to be working at the California State Thespian Festival in a few weeks (April 8, 9, 10 2011) and, in thinking about how I want to approach the students this year, I’ve dug up some recent research on how being involved in the arts while attending school improves academic performance in other areas.
Now, these are all theater students so you’d think they really don’t need any additional reasons to stay involved in their theater classes. But that’s not necessarily the case.
I was blessed with supportive parents in high school. Whatever I wanted to try, they encouraged. Music, art, theater – all classes that lead down a road of limited career options. My parents, however, saw it differently. They somehow knew that being involved in the arts could have a profound impact on my life. And they were completely correct. That’s not to say that they didn’t ask me if I was absolutely sure that I wanted to be involved in the arts, because they did. They asked me (only once, to their credit) to consider what I’d do if my theater/artistic aspirations didn’t yield fruit. Despite my snottily-delivered, overly-confident answer of “I don’t need a Plan B”, they continued supporting my creative endeavors.
However, many students who attend theater classes in high school will not make their careers in theater because their parents reinforce the argument that the arts are a pleasant diversion, not a career path. Worse, many parents believe that the arts are a waste of time and detract from academic performance.
But what’s interesting is that being involved in the arts can make you smarter in other subjects, which is something most parents would be surprised to hear. There’s a great in-depth article, “Arts and Smarts – Test Scores and Cognitive Development” over on Sharp that is fascinating reading for those interested in this subject. An excerpt-
—In 2007, Lois Het­land and Ellen Win­ner pub­lished a book, Stu­dio Think­ing: The Real Ben­e­fits of Visual Art Edu­ca­tion, that is so far one of the most rig­or­ous stud­ies of what the arts teach. “Before we can make the case for the impor­tance of arts edu­ca­tion, we need to find out what the arts actu­ally teach and what art stu­dents actu­ally learn,” they write.
Work­ing in high school art classes, they found that arts pro­grams teach a spe­cific set of think­ing skills rarely addressed else­where in the school curriculum—what they call “stu­dio habits of mind.” One key habit was “learn­ing to engage and per­sist,” mean­ing that the arts teach stu­dents how to learn from mis­takes and press ahead, how to com­mit and fol­low through. “Stu­dents need to find prob­lems of inter­est and work with them deeply over sus­tained peri­ods of time,” write Het­land and Winner.—
Of course, theater isn’t what they studied, but the same thought-processes evident in the visual arts are also found in theater; and I’m inclined to believe the results would be the same.
You can read the full article here.