Art as salvation or education?

Arts education is being sold as a way to “save” unmotivated students, writes Mark Bauerlein, a veteran of the National Endowment for the Arts,  in Education Next. If the arts aren’t valuable for their own sake and for all students, they’ll lose out.

If you want to advocate a field, you have to justify it as a discipline. It has to form a body of knowledge and skills that students study at least partly for its own sake. In the case of the arts, a graduated curriculum would incorporate technical skills and art history and theory, just as English language arts integrate literacy skills and the lineages of English, American, and world literatures. Yes, arts learning may have social and moral and professional benefits, but if people don’t value the materials of the fields themselves —if they can’t say that if High School X doesn’t acquaint students with Renaissance painting, classical music, and modern dance, its graduates will be undereducated — then arts educators lose in the competition for funds and hours in the day. Arts education remains an extracurricular, and school administrators focused on math and reading can push it aside: The arts are fine, so let kids who are interested in them study in an afterschool program like band practice.

As head of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia told staffers that  arts education should enable students to encounter “lasting works of force and beauty.”

Gioia insisted that “Learning in the Arts for Children and Youth” grant recipients must “apply national or state arts education standards,”  and assess whether students were learning those standards — not just whether they enjoyed themselves or participated.

Gioia also developed initiatives such as Shakespeare tours,  American Masterpieces and Poetry Out Loud, a competition in which high-school students memorize and recite a poem from a list of classic and contemporary poets.

The content of art and artistic tradition was at the center of each initiative. When Gioia first unveiled Poetry Out Loud, some state arts officers protested because it didn’t allow students to present their own compositions. Gioia’s reply was, in effect, “That isn’t what the competition is about.” With this particular effort, he wanted to encourage more reading of great poems, not more writing of adolescent verse.

As editor of my high school literary magazine, I applaud the last sentiment. (When I was in college, the editor of  the literary magazine, Dana Gioia, rejected my submission. Still a little bitter.)

In my school days, we didn’t study works of force and beauty. We drew bad pictures in art class and sang in music. There was no dance class. Drama was a high school elective, though we all read lots of Shakespeare.

My daughter had a dab of cultural history in a humanities class. I vaguely recall her writing about how a work of art — Kandinsky? — made her feel.

With the exception of music, which still requires hitting the right notes, the arts are seen as a way for kids to be creative — with no “wrong answers” — not as a discipline to be mastered.

Politicizing the arts is the easiest way to kill arts education, Bauerlein writes in a blog post.

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