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.

What is arts education?

Just recently, In August 2009, Secretary Duncan made a rather vague plug for the arts, in which he stated that “the arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem solvers who are confident and able to think creatively.”

If that was all the arts could do, I would shrug my shoulders. What about teaching students to sing in three-part harmony, or perform a Shakespeare monologue? What about the student who works for hours on the light and shadows in her painting?

The arts certainly have side benefits. They may draw out the abilities of a student who has not performed well in other subjects. They teach discipline and persistence. Students come to know the joy of taking part in something beautiful, of mastering difficult material and seeing it come together. And through this they may also be reading, building vocabulary, working with abstract concepts, learning about measure, rhythm, proportion, and time, and much more. The arts draw a school community together; there are few events as exciting as the opening night of a play, when the auditorium is packed with proud parents and siblings.

Beyond that, the arts prepare students to participate in cultural life, as performers, audience, or both. Without arts education, many children will know only the culture of the Internet, the iPod, and TV—rich resources in their own right, but limiting if you don’t know what to look for. Without the support of young people, many local cultural institutions will close. We will be left with whatever culture we can find on our individual screens.

So we need arts education, but what is it? What constitutes a strong arts program in schools? We can devote a certain number of hours to the arts, but what should happen during those hours?

Arts education consists of several overlapping categories.

First, there is knowledge of the arts: the study of music theory and art history; the reading and analysis of plays, and so forth. This sort of study can exist on its own, or it can be part of arts, history, and literature classes. Either way, it can enhance students’ understanding not only of the arts, but also of history, literature, and science.

Second, there is experience of the arts: watching a play, listening to music, looking at a painting, watching a photographer in the darkroom, and so on. Experience may also consist of making art: making a clay sculpture, playing a simple instrument, taking part in a class performance, or learning a simple dance.

Third, there is the discipline of the arts: the practice of working on something and seeing it take shape and improve. This could take the form of learning to play an instrument or to sing with phrasing; developing a role in a play; practicing the drawing of specific objects; or perfecting a dance step. Most serious work on plays or music takes place after school and requires substantial independent work as well.

Fourth, there is artistic creation, for instance: composing a piece of music, writing a play, or choreographing a dance. While this is difficult to do well or teach well, children should be given a chance to try.

Which of these categories cannot be left out? Which should take priority? What does a good arts program look like?

Many of us, myself included, look for schools that have excellent plays and concerts—that is, where students are at a high level of proficiency in the arts. But such a school may depend on students’ outside preparation. It may draw students who have had instruction elsewhere—in private lessons, music schools, church choirs, outside theater programs, and summer camps. The students performing in the plays may be a small percentage of the entire student body—a talented and privileged few. That in no way detracts from the school’s accomplishments in the arts, but it is not the same as an arts curriculum.

Readers, what makes an excellent arts curriculum, in your view? If you were looking for a school with a strong arts program–where you might study, teach, or enroll your child–what would you be looking for?

And here’s a harder question: Suppose students had one period of music and one period of art per week (one period=45 minutes). Under those circumstances, what sort of arts instruction would benefit the students the most?

Diana Senechal