Phylicia Rashad: Cutting Arts in Schools Restricts Critical and Creative Thinking

Phylicia Rashad may be best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show from 1984-1992, but the Tony-winning and Emmy-nominated actress is also a strong proponent of public education who continues to support the efforts of educators across the country.

Rashad, who will emcee the NEA Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Gala on February 7, attended public school in Houston, Tex. during a time of legal segregation. Through the dedication and commitment of her teachers and principals, Rashad was able to receive a well-rounded education. Rashad credits teachers with helping her prepare for a successful career on stage and on television.

NEA Today recently talked with Rashad about her own experiences in public education, her thoughts on teaching and the profession, and the importance of keeping performing and visual arts classes in school.

How did you become such a strong supporter of public education?

Public education influenced most of my childhood, not only as a student in public schools, but also in my family. We had a number of public educators in our family, starting with my grandmother and many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

But education was very important when I was growing up, and not just for my family and me. People put great stock in education and educators. Teachers were revered, they were well respected. They were altruistic in nature. Teachers were in the classroom because that’s where they wanted to be. I got the best of it. I had teachers who taught my father, who were invested in the community, who had their children in the public school system. They had great expectations for us, and they were determined to see those expectations realized.

Why is it important to recognize and celebrate excellent educators?

Teachers are so important. There would be no doctors, there would be no lawyers, there would be no engineers, there would be no plumbers or electricians, there would be no politicians. None of this would be possible without education and the hard work of educators. None of it. A strong education is the root of a healthy society and a healthy nation. And they should be honored and respected for their efforts. That’s why the NEA is so important and that’s why the NEA Foundation gala is so important.

What role have educators played in your own life? I know that your high school English teacher, Mrs. Wheadon, was one of the ones who left a lasting impression.

Mrs. Wheadon was just one of the teachers who inspired me. She was my homeroom teacher, so I interacted with her every day—in the beginning of the day, and at the end of the day. She was also my English teacher in high school, for grammar and literature, for both 10th and 12th grade.

She instilled a love for learning. She invented methods for teaching grammar that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and they were all inventions because teachers at the time were not bound the way teachers are today to have to teach to the test. Teachers at that time educated students to think for themselves. And it worked because you passed the test, and you learned how to think. It was more than just sitting down and answering the questions on the page.

There was also Mrs. Schiller. She taught organ and girl’s choir and French, and she was the majorette sponsor. I was a majorette and you couldn’t just be a majorette because you knew how to march and twirl a baton. You had to maintain a B-average, and you had to go to twirling camp every year. Now twirling camp was all the way on the other side of Houston. Every day, at the end of her full day when it was time to go, she piled six majorettes into her car and drove us all the way to the other side of the city. She did that all on her own, and she didn’t have to do that. They all did things on their own to support us, to augment our experiences and our learning.

Why are performance and visual arts classes so critical in school?

Children by nature are creative. They sing before they talk. They draw pictures before they write. And as soon as they can stand up, they are dancing. In the long run, students are benefitted by the development of creative thinking. There has to be critical thinking, there has to be analytical thought, and there must be creative thinking.

What happens is the students gain a broader view of their own self, of their own capacities to enjoy different aspects of life. They learn about human evolvement and human effort and passion in the world. With those kinds of classes and activities, students bond together in different ways, through teamwork and having to work with others. They learn how to openly express themselves and their identities through art. And, it augments academic learning and the academic experience. You become a better student through creative expression.

Why don’t we want creative thinking students? Why don’t we want them thinking outside the box? It’s so much easier to herd people when they’re not allowed to think.

All the kids who played in the band, they’re not all musicians. Those people are doctors, they’re lawyers, they’re administrators. It was never the plan that they would all become musicians. It’s a part of an education that helps you become a well-rounded individual.

My big question is to the people—what sense does it make to continue to elect politicians and pay them to take things from you that your children need?

Why is it so important to encourage the next generation of educators to join the profession?

It’s not just enough to encourage them to become teachers. We have to give them something wonderful to walk into every day. I know educators who are at schools where the textbooks are falling apart. We have to give them a good support system to walk into. We have to do what it takes to support them.

So let’s focus on the positives and show the potential for what can happen when we fund our schools. Let’s show innovation that includes humanity and people. Let’s show that, and let’s give people that to buy into. Not only is it possible, it’s at the tip of our fingers. All we have to do is take hold of it. That’s all.