Recently by Eric Booth
As we come down the homestretch of this blogalogue (sorry, let's never use that ugly neologism again), I have been reflecting on its impact on me. [Reflection itself deserves a mention in here, as an fundamental cognitive function, a learning-essential according to John Dewey, that is squeezed out of current schooling--and the arts provide a haven for that capacity; when doing teaching artist work myself, it sometimes feels like I am doing remedial reflective work with the class.] I come to the end of the week with the mix of feeling daunted and rejuvenated at the same time. Perhaps this blog is not so different than the healthy environment for arts learning which is concurrently both safe and charged. Perhaps a passionate player in any field who faces "a sea of troubles" with dubious resources but strong-smart-committed colleagues feels just this. And we have heard many reminders in this week that it ain't all troubles out there--arts education accomplishes a lot.
We are not alone--American arts education is somewhere in the middle of the international pack overall. (I believe we have the world's best teaching artists and the most in-depth partnerships between schools and cultural organizations in the world.) Arts educators in most countries feel many of the same frustrations, bemoan testing demands that strangle the arts, and a lot of them are worse off than we are. Annie Cornbleet from England's Daniel House school puts it: "The arts are the antibiotic injection in the bum of the diseased body of 21st century education." A speaker from Spain found education worldwide to be so rotten at the core, so profoundly wrong, that he believes its current institutional life will just implode one day, like the former Soviet Union; and that the ruins will allow the arts to be seen as the solution to the problem our culture refused to admit it had.
No revolution ever happened without a lot of talk. So we will keep using words and the other power tools of the arts to change the culture--as artists have done since day two in human history. The etymology of "culture" does not mean high arts or sophisticated learning. It's meaning of origin is closer to "agriculture." Like that agar agar in your ninth grade biology Petri dish, culture means "the medium in which we grow."
Thanks to Doug for giving us this platform. Thanks to these generous colleagues. Thanks to those who took the time to read and consider our jumble of thoughts. Doug tells us that this blog is the most read of any he has ever hosted on Arts Journal.
I want our blog-community to be sure not to miss two important ideas offered in responses I found this morning to some previous postings.
Dennie Palmer Wolf (writer, researcher, consultant) urges us to focus not so much on talking to each other: "There are huge urgencies in contemporary education where arts educators need to take a leading role - and not by talking to each other. Among the most pressing issues is this: "Who gets the chance to do original work -- whether that is in history, in science, in mathematics - or in music, visual arts, or dance? In fact, the equity issue of this generation is "Who has the opportunity to incubate, pursue, refine and share new knowledge/visions/ or interpretations? So a major way in which arts education might come in from the margins is to begin to talk - not amongst ourselves - but widely and as active agents - about how educators champion young people's need (right?) to learn how to generate new ideas, works and views. That meeting could be initiated, chaired, even designed by arts educators, but just one homework session later. I want mathematicians, historians and world language teachers at the table."
Thanks, Dennie, and my response is the value of BOTH kinds of conversation. Arts educators are a huge resource to all education, and tend not to see ourselves that way or be treated that way. Just as the arts teachers are not generally seen as a uniquely valuable resource for creativity and engagement in a school. AND we really need, in my view, to get clearer on what our real strengths, priorities, and best offerings are, otherwise we risk offering fifty ideas to those major discussions in education, and getting impact with none.
And Gigi Antoni from Big Thought in Dallas (whose work has been cited so frequently here as a model of success) likes Richard's list of emerging trends in agreed-upon priority focus for the field, but wants to add to it: "I see multiple attempts in cities (Portland, Dallas, Philadelphia, Cleveland the list goes on) to innovate traditional arts education delivery systems so that they can provide coordinated, scalable, sustainable, relevant, high quality experiences for whole cities of children throughout their lifetime. These attempts use policy, advocacy, and research as tools, along with coalition building, community organizing and collaboration, to create something different. These are initiatives that are not driven from an arts, arts ed, or even wholly from an education agenda, but from a broader civic agenda. These cities are working to create new delivery models for arts education that include traditional instruction through school systems, while incorporating the broader community system in which schools exist. In some cases, these initiatives are challenging traditional notions of who in our community could legitimately teach the arts, when and to what end."
Arts education becoming part of (creating perhaps) broad civic coalitions that aspire to fulfill a broad civic agenda. And rethinking our ways and means as part of that.
I have just written three postings that I didn't post. I spared you--you should thank me. As I got to the end of each, they felt passionate and true, but so partial, so unsatisfyingly incomplete, even in the face of our four days of views from 16 amiable colleagues. Each of the issues we have raised is BIG. Sam, I want to talk with you about those lifelong professional instructors; Midori, I want to talk with you about the place of passion and nurturing it in artist training; and Jane, let's talk practical matters; and, and, and. This is a familiar feeling from conferences and meetings, of starting something that piddles away. The feeling is evergreen, but doesn't feel like its growing. Do we have to be bonsai evergreens?
What about this? There is an organization (can't remember its name) that convenes a modest number of representative individuals, like 20 or so. They have them for a week in a retreat setting. They lay out all the information they can about a serious issue, like abortion, or health insurance, and facilitate their coming to conclusions, They have a full week of time to do this, to think through the issues, as we rarely seem to be able to do in groups that come from different arenas (silos?) of our field. And given this wealth of time, they think through and then make recommendations to the field. Is this something we should strive to do? Imagine if we 16 (to suggestion a currently handy, somewhat random group) had a full week together to see what we truly agree on. There's a thought experiment for you. Is this something we should try to foster?
I got a nicely distilled response from Richard Kessler this evening that I wanted to offer our blog. He bullet points the key priorities that he sees our field coalescing around. I will want to reflect on these to see if they comprise a net that capture the issues I hear most commonly argued to advance the cause of arts education, but they feel pretty resonant at first glance. Thank you, Richard. Do other bloggers feel these four are the key ones?
"I think there are some clear trends emerging from the field, some of it is still relatively nascent, some of it is much further along:
1. Policy work, including work in federal and state policies, as well
2. Advocacy, including grass roots organizing, including
coalition-building, and training of parents.
3. A focus on improving, defining, and understanding quality.
4. Expanded data gathering.
I think if you look at the work that Ford Foundation has been stressing with its grantees, you begin to see an interesting nucleus emerging that includes the above."
And let me second Kiff's note about the opportunity of artist national service as a real contribution to changing our persistent status quo. It is indeed being considered seriously. Imagine young artists (not just classical arts as I see it) supported (and well prepared as teaching artists) to work in communities across the country. Somewhere between the WPA and Affiliate Artists, for those with long memories. Perhaps we can change the image of what a successful career as a 21st century artist looks like. And begin to change a culture's view of what America represents--as the Peace Corps has done in other counties.
Maybe I have become a selfish old frump, but I would like to see some real change in the status quo in my lifetime. I have been fortunate enough to see and participate in (most of us have) great experiments that show possibilities--thank heavens for those examples and models of what could be. Maybe that's the best we are going to get, more and more examples, some being at the classroom level, some at the school level, and some even at the district or community/city level. I have also heard ten plausible strategies for making that serious dent in the national status quo--a number of those strategies have appeared in our blog. Where I lose my innate optimism is in the sense that we as a field will never be able to gather our force in any kind of coordinated focus to work as a community. We are good at identifying twenty ways in which the arts and arts education are important; we are good at "should-ing" on people and institutions; but we are hopeless at agreeing upon one or three ways to create change. Perhaps it is counter to our essential nature to do so, but I don't see how we can ever escape the gravitational pull of cultural norms unless we do.
I was struck by the lesson of the National Performing Arts Conference in Denver this summer, the largest gathering of arts leaders ever. The design of the conference, guided by the group America Speaks, culminated in voting as a performing arts community on priorities for common actions that would positively impact the climate for all the arts. There was clear agreement about the three top arenas for common action: advocacy, arts education, and diversity. Not much agreement on the specifics--the conference leaders intend to keep the community-building process underway to bring consensus toward common action, but the process is incredibly slow. And it took huge amounts of money, and years of preparation, just to begin. Many at the conference had never seriously considered they were part of a functional community of the arts before. One idea I have heard resonate in this blog is to focus locally. Dallas certainly provides one example of how to do that, and that arts education can lead a change in the cultural community, not follow it--to connect with the original question of this blog. How do we get enough local agreement to break out of gravitational norms at the district and community/city level? And what other strategies might there be for getting effective agreement within the field as a whole?
Sam, those thought-experiments are useful to me. May I add one. What if...we stopped trying to leverage more 40 minute blocks of time for arts education (only the hardest currency to get in schooling), and considered "creativity across the curriculum." I have done some work with classroom and arts teachers at every level to create two to three minute activities that they can do five days a week that isotonically develop basic arts skills like ideational fluency (generating multiple solutions) or metaphor-making, or pattern-recognition, etc. What if those skills and others were distributed throughout all classes, and all activities in school, and arts teachers were the resource leaders for how to introduce such skills in twenty ways throughout every day? My early dabblings in this approach tell me it works, bigtime.
And responses to John's three accurate throws from left field. To #2--in Scotland they have developed an official national cultural rights policy to announce what ALL Scots can expect culturally from their culture (to address the inequitable distribution problem) (this is akin to the work Bill Ivey is doing and published in his latest book--and interesting, John, that Bill is heading Obama's arts/culture transition team), AND Scotland instituted a music education policy that equates all kinds of music. The state schooling does not prejudice violin over electric guitar, and takes responsibility for developing skills in either, determined by the interest of the learner, to the level of expertise the learner wants to go. To John's #3--the advocacy dream I have, that people laugh at, but I am serious, is to have pairs of adequately trained artists knock on every single door in America to talk about the arts in people's lives. To let people know about local resources, free and not, to engage in dialogue about artistry and personal history in the arts, etc--all the stuff you can do one on one. The Wallace research in Dallas found that lack of awareness and transportation were the biggest blocks to greater arts participation for residents. So I imagine a national initiative to get artists and arts-lovers in every community mobilized to knock on doors and listen and share and connect. Yes, it is like Jehovah's Witnesses, but I think it is an answer that can work.
Susan, Jack and I are noting how the imposition of outgrown understandings of what "arts" and "arts education" mean hobbles the organic and natural expression that the arts always have been and continue to be--clearly in Jack's example of The Sims in the Hands of Artists experiment. The semantic trap seems to be just the tip of the real iceberg that we are grappling with. I don't think there is an easy solution even to the semantic trip--people in business have asked me if we can just stop using the word "art" because they stop listening. They then confessed they are not really interested in the word "creativity" either--they kind of glaze over--they like the word "innovation" because it is the product that they really care about, getting new business-ready products as a competitive advantage. No, I don't propose that we get into a language dance to please anyone.
In a comment on this blog Richard Kessler added a strong point: "These questions of definition occur partly because of the many ways in which arts and arts education takes place. You've got the disciplines, ever changing, lines blurring; you've got the originating versus interpretive, and of course, the combination of the two; you've got the professional versus the amateur; you've got discipline based or centered, versus integrated--both in a an educational framework, and more and more in how the arts are being created and performed by cross disciplinary artists. Not to mention youth development, in-school, after school, community-based, traditional versus non-traditional. It's a kaleidoscope, and you can find virtually all of the different kinds somewhere in some school and community setting."
So what do we do? Richard grounds my dream of our field ever coming to any kind of consensus about a deeper truth that contains our organic polarities that we can all get behind. The public has a limited definition that balkanizes and limits the range and value of arts and arts education? Michael and Edward and others point out that the action ground is local, and the remarkable example of Dallas and Big Thought provides a sense that movement is possible under their circumstance anyway. So what do we do?
KIff, I think the traditional canon vs. non-traditional music focus is as red herring an issue as arts skill building vs. arts integration. Yes, we pour energy into these seeming dichotomies (and I think other fields that happen to notice us are glad we do because it diffuses our potential force for change when we circle the wagons and shoot at other). I try to follow the challenge of David Bohm, the great physicist of the 20th century who said that any time you see seeming polarities, look for the greater truth that contains them both. I think we all know something about these greater truths, but we are not aiming for them.
I am not convinced Americans will ever value a serious commitment to the arts as a high priority of American life, as Laura posits the challenge--certainly not the way we define the arts so narrowly in this country--and if no change in that, there will never be any real change in the status quo of arts education. I think we need to tap that deeper agreement area about the arts where all Americans live the value of the arts but don't call them arts. Where we engage fully as humans. Where we pour ourselves into a task because we are intrinsically motivated to make something beautiful of it, even if it is a Thanksgiving table setting or conversation with a friend or report to a business committee. This is the deeper place that "art" has always come to life in, including the art of bricklaying, and it is about a pouring of the individual self into an enabling constraint in any medium (rondo form, 8 by 10 piece of paper, 5 paragraph essay, scientific method), about taking a skill or craft to a high level of expression, about inquiring and exploring in original ways and coming to new discoveries. And more.
The default definition of "art" is a huge problem for us--it puts us into a frame with many limiting associations, associations that are NOT true in the "artistry" people know, value and apply throughout their lives. I dream of an arts education that explicitly attends to these deeper, universal capacities, as it develops those skills, largely through arts media because they are more responsive, eloquent and rewarding than other media for exactly these skills.
Moy, you point out the difficulty of getting education reform that benefits arts education in any meaningful way moving. A year ago, I was with Americans for the Arts National Arts Policy Roundtable, several days of inquiry about arts education with NOT the usual suspects at the table. The business leaders asserted that American education changes dramatically only when the business community feels fear --Sputnik, A Nation At Risk, etc. Coolidge was right: the business of America is business. [I agree, Jane, that we have the arts and arts education our culture wants.] I think American business is beginning to get genuinely scared that innovative capacity is heading overseas to India and China and other countries. Many biz leaders believe this is their competitive edge, at a time when they have fewer worldwide competitive edges than they have had before. Can we start to make that case, and align the players you cite, Moy, asserting that academics-hammering exacerbates the problem?
The bizfolk I have heard don't believe arts education delivers the goods they want, and they are right. We don't know how to develop creative capacity well. We are scared of assessing that capacity partly because it is hard to do, but mostly because we don't really know what we are doing. We have had several observations in this discussion about the data on arts education being inadequate. I heard one businessman say, "If you could convince me that arts education effectively and reliably develops innovative capacity, give me hard data to confirm it, I would become your biggest supporter overnight."
Sam Hope, executive director, The National Office for Arts Accreditation (NOAA);
Jack Lew, Global University Relations Manager for Art Talent at EA;
Laura Zakaras, RAND;
James Cuno, Director, Art Institute of Chicago;
Richard Kessler, Executive Director, Center for Arts Education;
Eric Booth, Actor;
Bau Graves, Executive director, Old Town School of Folk Music;
Kiff Gallagher, Founder & CEO of the Music National Service Initiative and MusicianCorps
Bennett Reimer, Founder of the Center for the Study of Education and the Musical Experience, author of A Philosophy of Music Education;
Edward Pauly, the director of research and evaluation at The Wallace Foundation;
Moy Eng, Program Director of the Performing Arts Program at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation;
John Rockwell, critic;
Susan Sclafani, Managing Director, Chartwell Education Group;
Jane Remer, Author, Educator, Researcher
Michael Hinojosa, General Superintendent, Dallas Independent School District
Peter Sellars, director
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