The past year was hell for the arts. The Georgia Council for the Arts, which awards competitive grants statewide, faced severe downsizing when it was proposed that all of its state funding be axed. In turn, the threat of a bleak, art-funding-less Georgia brought the masses to the Gold Dome to protest in April 2010 (the funding came through in the end). More under the radar were the cuts across Georgia schools: 35 colleges needed to come up with $600 million in cuts for the 2011-2012 academic year. As a result, those colleges saw as many changes in their departments as Heidi Montag did in her cup size.
While cuts to the schools' performing arts programs were rampant — reduced state support to University of Georgia's Performing Arts Center, terminated music and theater departments at Gordon College, and a suspended master of music program at North Georgia College & State University, to name a few — many schools found innovative ways to contend with the budget wrath. The aftermath of cutting $600 million led to the biggest trend in learning: a merger of arts education with fields like science and technology.
On the heels of popularized theories such as the Mozart effect, neurologists have determined that studying the arts can augment other learning processes and benefit brain function. For example, reading music activates a cascade of brain regions that are also involved in learning a foreign language, from processing the rhythm and meter (which parallels sentence structure), to activating the parts of the brain involved in expectations about what note (or word) comes next. Memorizing the quadratic formula, however, as with anything else simply stored in the human brain, only utilizes one system, run by the hippocampus.
Arts also have a dopamine effect that aids in learning. Anytime a strong emotion is involved — maybe from a video that makes you laugh, a catchy song, or an image you can't shake from memory — it fires up a network of regions including the mesolimbic system, involved in arousal and pleasure, which makes material easier to remember by association. If a positive valence sparks this pathway, natural opioids are transmitted and dopamine is produced.
That makes the arts crucial in what are possibly the two most important sectors of education — early childhood development and college classes. And that gives arts advocates more than a mere chisel to fight arts-related budget cuts.
Since the April protest at the Capitol, colleges made sacrifices that unexpectedly led in a new direction, one that allowed them to infuse art, specifically music, into other areas of study. For example, after recent faculty cuts, Georgia State University began work on a new initiative that calls upon music as one of four departments at the school to incorporate new media studies, effectively forming such cross-disciplinary courses as Digital Music Technology that merge the arts with other areas of study rather than extinguishing them from the curriculum completely.
Georgia Tech and Emory University have also found ways to sustain the arts through music. Though music courses are typically geared to teach strictly music performance or education, science — namely biology, physics and various social sciences — comprises the latest addition in the evolution of musical training. Courses such as Georgia Tech's Music Perception and Cognition and Emory's the Musical Brain use music to explore the human psyche at its core and integrate biology with sound perception.
Reaching beyond a single course, Tech also offers a concentration in music technology, which trains students to become not only musical architects but also engineers. These cross-disciplinary fields of study help salvage some fiscal issues while broadening students' scope and maintaining self-expression.
Though the arts make easy targets for budget cuts, the result has proven to not be all bad in Atlanta's institutions of higher learning. Interdisciplinary curriculums that marry the arts with sciences and other subjects can make for a balanced education when push comes to shove.