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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  1. I think that art and music history/appreciation should be an integral part of k-12 education, as it was when I was in school in the 50s-60s. It is part of cultural literacy. We had no art teacher and no regular music teacher, but my classroom teachers would have been insulted if anyone had suggested that they were unable to expose students to the artistic and musical aspects of civilization. However, art and music teachers seem to be far too focused on performance; none of the schools my kids attended offered any kind of art or music appreciation/history. They would have loved such options to meet the fine arts requirement.

  2. For some students are will motivate them. But that there is something that will motivate any child to learn just for some art may not be it. That is why I am so excited with online classes to supplement school offerings. It gives more chances to find that thing some students are looking for.

  3. Kazuo Ishiguro’s book, soon to be released as a film, Never Let Me Go, is about children who are organ donor clones and go to a boarding school called Hailsham. According to Wikipedia, the school’s emphasis on art is an attempt to prove to society that clones have souls.

  4. My kids’ school has an opera program, but I fail to see the value in it. The entire 3rd grade is broken up into groups who are in charge of all the different jobs necessary for putting on a performance, including writing and directing the opera. Needless to say, the “opera” is really really bad. How wonderful it would be if they were directed to put on a real opera rather than left to do it themselves.

  5. At the third-grade level, I’d rather see some instruction about the opera format, noted composers and their works, and listening to high-quality operatic selections. Back in my day, all of the above might be condensed into couple of hours on a Friday afternoon, with both written materials and music (records!) available for later use by students who had finished other work or who wanted to use before/after-school time. The opera project above sounds like a huge waste of instructional time, but current educational “thought” seems to be totally unacquainted with the concept of efficiency.

  6. I remember my poems getting rejected for my school newsletter once. I was bitter too.

  7. Art is epitomised by its products being rendered seemingly effortlessly. The sparkling colours of the painting, the high pitch of the trumpet, the terse prose in the novel, the beauty of the chair you sit on, the accessible design of the website, the wonderful proportions of the building, all these riveting expressions of art seem to come naturally and with ease. I guess that’s why art is often underestimated in education when decisions are made about budget and curriculum.
    The artists who perform these acts are experts in their disciplines. They don’t want you to feel obliged because they worked so hard to attain this level. They just thrill you with their skills.
    Be sure: they have worked doggedly for many years to make you feel enthralled. And they need you. They need an educated audience that perceives their colour combinations, discerns the melodic line in the symphony, recognises the style of the chair, and appreciates the post modern whimsical approach of the architect. Above all they need the applause or jeers that tell them what is ugly and without merit and what is beautiful and contributes to our well-being.
    That’s what we do as art teachers in secondary education. We teach the audience for the artists. Every so often we have a talented artist among our students and we will show him the way to a profession as an artist. But that is not the main thing. Neither am I very interested in developing hobbyists who take up art for leisure at a later stage in their life, though such a thing is not to be sneezed at. Art classes are not about making lovely art only. We teach creative procedures, artistic principles, art history, and the making of art to create a knowledgeable audience for the artists. That revs up the engine of our culture and advances the quality of our lives.

  8. Mike Curtis says:

    “Being creative” means never having to reveal that you don’t really “know” anything.

  9. Leslie Cusick says:

    I think the reason “the arts” might “save” unmotivated students is because they are naturally engaging and allow students to work (and develop) innate talent(s). The arts also tap different modes of intelligence as well as the senses. They are a valuable and satisfying diversion from the rigors of abstract thought – no matter what!

    Got to go teach art . . .


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