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Guest Blog, Bruce Taylor: What is the Future Role for Arts In Public Education?

What is the Future Role for the Arts In Public Education?

by Bruce Taylor

 The increasingly contentious debate about school reform juxtaposes two contrasting realities about the arts:  one, that their place in our schools has been steadily and seriously eroded; the other, that the skills inherent in artistic practice are rapidly becoming essential to a healthy 21st century economy/society.

Most articles concerning this disconnect focus their analysis outside the field emphasizing the combination of challenges that have resulted in the marginalization of the arts in schools, conditions so effectively articulated by Nick Rabkin and others. However, there is a necessary corollary that must be addressed and often isn’t. Collectively, we have to step outside the echo chamber we have boxed ourselves into and examine what we’ve been doing these several decades and why.

To begin with, we all know what happened to arts education over the past 30 years. We should also realize that we collectively devised hundreds of arts programs that reached 65% of all kids in the early 1980s, in thousands of schools costing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. So how did that work out?  Not only were the arts severely diminished in public education, but those very kids we supposedly reached back in the 80s, became the parents of kids in schools where the arts were cut!  Keeping in mind it wasn’t educators that cut the arts in schools, but school boards that represented, for the most part, the priorities of their parent communities.

Over the years, I think some of our passions were misplaced.  I’d like to outline what they are and to suggest some possible alternatives.  These misplaced passions include: the emphasis on practitioner development, the social fix it concept, the conversion in the cathedral syndrome, and a missionary mentality.

As a result, the dilemma is far deeper than just declining numbers.  For decades the foundation for arts education has rested on the twin pillars of practitioner development and what some artists refer to as social justice through the arts. Couple this with the exposure model of introducing the arts to students – the conversion in the cathedral syndrome – along with a widely held belief that artists have a special dispensation when it comes to commentary on the human condition.

There are several problems with this existing context.  First, in reality, kids engage with the arts all the time.  Their preferred art form is popular music, followed by television, video games and film.  Yet when we employ the term “arts,” we really mean only theatre, opera, dance, music in a concert hall, and the visual art found in museums.  Why?  Perhaps because influential people believe these are the “serious” art forms: deeper, more complex or enlightening. But preference does not equate to value.

As an aside, there is a mistaken belief that the types of music presented to kids in schools acculturates them to an approved cultural milieu (i.e. Eurocentric).  This is a myth: If it were actually true that we could brainwash kids by presenting them with the music of dead European white males, there would be an awful lot more young adults in the concert halls and many more recordings of classical music being sold. In reality, the reverse is true. So, either their teachers did a really lousy job of introducing the likes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, or the music that really acculturates kids today is the music they buy.

When it comes to music and art classes in schools, our focus has been on teaching kids the basics of being an artist.  In music for instance, kids are taught musical notation and learn about the great composers; their overriding concern becomes performing pieces for the winter or spring concerts.  In art classes, students are taught how to draw or to create pieces in three dimensions, learn about the great artists of the past, and have their own artwork displayed for all to see.  Even if the two other major art forms, dance and theatre, are offered, instruction focuses on memorizing lines, choreography, or stage directions.  The message is simple: “Just remember to do what you’re told.”  It’s no wonder that the public’s perception is that arts education should only be for kids who want to be artists – the “Glee” wannabes.

Over the years, discussions about the arts have also taken on a quasi-religious harmonic that, over the long run, I think, has backfired. The concept of the artist as “gifted” (read “divinely inspired”) possessed of some unique insight on the human condition. As religious faith is founded on belief in things that remain unproven, there is just such an aspect when it comes to the arts. While there is anecdotal evidence as to the transcendental benefits of the arts, this faith is communicated through four postures: that the arts can make you a better person, raise the moral standards of a society, rectify social ills, or modify someone else’s fundamental value system.

All too often, many teaching artists adopt the missionary mindset of teacher or preacher – knowing more or knowing better than non-artists.  Optimistically, I believe that a majority of artists, myself included, want to do good in the world.  But we have no more of a handle on society’s problems than do police officers, therapists, philosophers, social scientists, doctors or politicians – people who also interact intimately with humanity.  This arrogant posturing on our part ultimately has hurt us by diminishing us in the eyes of society’s broader spectrum.  While it is true that artists are informed with insight concerning human nature, it does not mean that we have some unique franchise on it.  This is not to say that artists do not have a valid perspective on the human condition. We do, but we do not have a lock on such perceptions – no more than anyone else in another profession who deals with human nature on a daily basis. Politicians, for example, are instrumental in shaping social policy and have had a much more pervasive effect on people’s lives. If you use the arts to proselytize, you are trying to get people to think and act the way you want.  This is a vain effort – in both senses of the word: Works of art don’t radically modify people’s beliefs, they reinforce what’s already there.

I also shy away from the idea that any art is “good for you.” This kind of thinking pervades the recent overtone that advocacy for the arts has acquired. As an honest witness for the arts, I don’t think there is enough evidence in the historical record to justify this. What is, after all, the “great” art of our own time? The discussion is a futile one, because we won’t be around to know. Great art is that which transcends historical and cultural boundaries and connects with a diversity of humankind.  Indeed, great art is timeless and so must reveal itself over time. Parenthetically, there was a lawyer for the performance artist Karen Finley (she of the controversial “NEA Four” back in 1990) who made the remarkable statement, “Great art is not what people like!”  On the face of it, think about the absurdity of that comment! So, such a determination is made by birds, fish, or household pets? Does the decision rest solely upon evaluation by other artists? Should we depend upon those who represent society’s elite, who have made money and achieved power and fame, to decree, “This is great art”?  Or does great art resonate with the greatest number of people over the longest span of time?

Okay, let me return to the arts in schools. What is the one appellation that is routinely penned to the arts?  “Enrichment.”  This term has become a euphemism for “non-essential,”  “extra.” There is a tendency in educational circles to think of the arts as an added supplement, but not as basic nutrition: Extra vitamins, if you will. To continue this dietary metaphor, some elements of the arts provide a momentary sugar high of satisfaction or enjoyment, but quickly fade.  There are other art activities that take longer to deliver their nutritional benefits, but have much more long-lasting results. In the former category are personal expression and self-esteem (this one is ironic, given the fact that most professional artists’ lives are filled with criticism and rejection!). The pleasurable rush of standing up in front of an audience for the spring concert or class play and hearing enthusiastic applause, seeing your painting hung in the school hallway for all to admire, or having your poem printed in the school’s anthology – all these are passing flushes of recognition.  So let me move on to address the more long lasting benefits of arts practice.

In other academic domains, the emphasis is entirely different from that presently applied to the arts.  Kids learn about history, not how to become historians or policy makers.  They don’t learn English language arts to become novelists or intellectuals, nor are they taught math to be mathematicians or for self-esteem, nor do they study science to become scientists or devise experiments for social justice.  In sum, students are supposed to develop competency in all these subjects to become capable adults, and – dare I even say it – able to make a living.

Consider what sort of world in which today’s children will be expected to be capable.  The present paradigm of public education is directed at the access and delivery of content.  While the nature of content has changed somewhat over the decades, the framework in which this process was implemented hasn’t changed much since the early 1900s; it’s a framework oriented towards factory and farm.  However, the percentage of employment absorbed by these two areas has plummeted from 60% to just 6% over the same span of time.

The work environment in which students will become new hires will be, and to a large extent already is, a conceptual economy of ideas where they will need to be able to think, create, and communicate effectively.  Not just with each other, but cross-culturally because to the dynamics of globalization that compel us to interact on a more intimate basis than ever before with people and cultures different from our own.  Recognition of these new dynamics has given birth to the development of “21st Century Skills” necessary for success in this much more complex, evolving context.  It is my belief that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift – one that will dramatically alter our perception of what it means to be educated.

Ironically, the very demands that will issue from this shift can be addressed by habits of mind that are developed through the arts in ways that are not necessarily arts dependent. Surely, we can see that there is a revelation of the obvious in that 21st century skills are arts skills!  And what drives this new emphasis?  The Internet – itself a visual and aural artistic medium.  It is because of the Internet and related technologies that we now have instant access to unlimited content (via “Google”), which decreases the need for the memorization of vast amounts of information/facts. The rapidly evolving power of artificial intelligence (AI) will enable students to have any content delivered to them as well (i.e. the answers) because of voice recognition technology.  Sooner than we anticipate they will be able to carry on a dialogue with tomorrow’s “Chatbots” housed in the equivalent of today’s smart phone, and ask, “Chatbot, please solve the following algebra equation for me,” or “Chatbot, what were the Articles of Confederation and in what year were they ratified?”

Whither then the role of the teacher after the access and delivery of content are enabled by machines?  To teach what computers cannot – those very 21st century skills!  But in order for this to happen, we must change what is meant by arts education and have the means to expand those skills into domains other than the arts.  I’m not asking teachers of the arts to change their choice of activities, but to shift their focus onto what used to be the byproducts of participation in the arts, and to address them by design rather than tangentially.  At the same time, classroom teachers in other academic subjects will have to become more creative themselves; following pre-scripted lesson plans will no longer be adequate.

What do I mean by that?  Human beings are born with the ability to create.  It’s inherent in the 1% of our DNA that distinguishes us from our nearest primate relative – the chimp.  It will become the task of teachers to unlock this innate capacity in their students. Already, the Massachusetts legislature has passed the “Creativity Challenge Index” which will result in a mandate for just such a requirement. Our creativity genes enable us to create a variety of expressions from a small amount of cognitive resources, to combine different domains of information to achieve a desired result, to think in the abstract and to develop diverse forms of communication.

Further, the primary way in which human beings connect with each other is through narrative – the telling of our stories.  Every form of art tells stories.  Narrative is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. Woven through the fabric of all narratives is emotion. We possess almost fifty times more of the specialized spindle cells in our brains that handle emotions than do our primate relatives. In order to communicate more effectively we employ the devices of metaphor and imagery, both of which elicit emotional responses.  These are also fundamental tools in all forms of art.  So think of what teaching artists can then bring to the table given such an educational perspective!

An analogy to the thrust of my basic argument can be found in the film Moneyball.  In it, the protagonist, Oakland A’s general manager, realizes that he can no longer compete with the richer baseball clubs such as the New York Yankees.  So, he completely rethinks baseball’s way of doing business and reflects on the fact that he wants to change its essential unfairness. Thus it is with the arts in public education.  In our present stressed economy, there are many other interests competing for political support and diminishing financial resources.

If the arts are to play a role the reformation of American education, then, their instruction must stem from a broad definition of what constitutes student achievement, not the narrow limits of today’s various forms of celebratory events such as performances and exhibitions.  Education in general will come to rely more on demonstration of understanding than recall of information.  In essence, this is what artistic products are: demonstrations of the artists’ understanding of what they know, believe, or feel.  How we demonstrate our understanding of things is at the core of the way we conduct our lives, develop our professional competencies, raise our children, form our relationships, communicate who we are, and view our place in the world.

That is why it is imperative to step outside of that echo chamber we retreat into. Let’s have a dialogue about rethinking our roles in today’s educational process. Otherwise, we will find ourselves in a continuing downward spiral.

Bruce Taylor

Bruce Taylor has been active as an arts educator since he entered the professional world of the performing arts after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

While he was employed by numerous theatre, dance, and opera companies as a stage director, manager, or designer, his avocation was always working with kids and teachers.  Back in the early 80s he brought both realms together by developing “Creating Original Opera” which is currently implemented in over a thousand schools throughout the world and is cited in the document “Champions of Change.”

He has since has seen his guide to arts education, The Arts Equation, published by Watson-Guptil, been a cultural envoy for the U.S. Department of State, and is a regular presenter and workshop director for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, school systems, and various arts consortia.

Most recently he was Director of Education for Washington National Opera until his relocation to Chicago to open a new chapter in his continuing journey to make a difference.

Bruce Taylor has been active as an arts educator since he entered the professional world of the performing arts after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

While he was employed by numerous theatre, dance, and opera companies as a stage director, manager, or designer, his avocation was always working with kids and teachers.  Back in the early 80s he brought both realms together by developing “Creating Original Opera” which is currently implemented in over a thousand schools throughout the world and is cited in the document “Champions of Change.”

He has since has seen his guide to arts education, The Arts Equation, published by Watson-Guptil, been a cultural envoy for the U.S. Department of State, and is a regular presenter and workshop director for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, school systems, and various arts consortia.

Most recently he was Director of Education for Washington National Opera until his relocation to Chicago to open a new chapter in his continuing journey to make a difference.

 

Comments

  1. Cathie Ault Kasch says:

    I loved that this article tried to mess with my lovely paradigm of arts education. And I am grateful that it angered me, inspired me and helps me do what I know I must if I want to have any impact in the current educational environment: rethink everything. The worst thing that could happen is that we become obsolete out of failing to advocate for all we can and do mean to 21st C skills.

  2. What the arts have to offer, and always has, is direct experience with creative activity and process. It can be about problem solving, social instrumentalism, cultural and historical repositories of diversity. But those are all devolve from the creative process.

    So, a methodology that is based on creative experience seems most useful and most “enriching” seems to be most appropriate for 21st century “skillsets”.

    Question: if “demonstrations of understanding” are what are required, but art performances and exhibitions aren’t useful, but do demonstrate understanding, what exactly does Mr. Taylor think arts curriculum’s content should be?

  3. It’s not complicated. The problem of why the arts and what are they and how should they be taught exists only in America’s public schools. You can be very very sure all the expensive private schools will still (continue to) offer choirs, instrumental music, the fundamentals of art and design, theatre, and beginning dance classes in the same practical way they offer graduated courses in Math, Reading, History, and PhysEd. There is no complicated introspection about the values of any of those classical subjects in a private school. They know that the skills needed to absorb any art form and to use it for oneself or for and with one’s community, are skills needed to be a homo sapiens capable of reflecting on the meanings of one’s time and place in the universe. Go to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Virtual ConcertHall, sign up (for free) and watch their educational programs. Most of them are archived and free. But never forget that they are fabulous because the Berlin Phil’s players are some of the most skilled and most creative players in the world. The creativity they demonstrate in story telling, involving the community, being fresh and contemporary, is absolutely the direct result of their years of experience and their great skills in their own art form. And the reason they can get involved with amateurs and young students with such sophisticated programs is because those people still hear and understand each of the art forms languages.

  4. Tracy Burton says:

    I think the author should take some time to actually sit in a fine art classroom before he makes a judgment as to what is being taught. “In art classes, students are taught how to draw or to create pieces in three dimensions, learn about the great artists of the past, and have their own artwork displayed for all to see.”…yes a bit, but so much more. It is certainly much more than simply exhibition of each student’s art work as he states later in the piece. As an art teacher I am offended. Please take some time to meet with the National Art Education Association and some real classroom art teachers. http://www.arteducators.org/
    http://www.arteducators.org/advocacy/10-lessons-the-arts-teach

    • Regarding “What is the Future Role for the Arts In Public Education’

      Where I do agree that 21st Century Skills are finally being attended to by school districts’ mission statements and supposed plans of action, it is my heartfelt and personal understanding that the fine arts are not benefiting from this recent turn to acknowledge what we have known all along, that “Critical thinking leads to real learning”.

      As a High School Art Teacher, I can without reservation state that critical thinking skills have been and continue to be supported by our curriculum. I would however, be remiss to ignore that what we provide is understood by our district as nothing more than non-essential. We struggle to change our students’ mindsets in how one acquires knowledge, vis-à-vis the critique process. We ask our students to first explore, then conceive, evaluate and critically reflect before taking the leap towards making. I believe what you call for in your article is already happening. I am hopeful that steady progress will eventually lead to ours being recognized as more than innate filler.

  5. Where I do agree that 21st Century Skills are finally being attended to by school districts’ mission statements and supposed plans of action, it is my heartfelt and personal understanding that the fine arts are not benefiting from this recent turn to acknowledge what we have known all along, that “Critical thinking leads to real learning”.
    As a High School Art Teacher, I can without reservation state that critical thinking skills have been and continue to be supported by our curriculum. I would however, be remiss to ignore that what we provide is understood by our district as nothing more than non-essential. We struggle to change our students’ mindsets in how one acquires knowledge, vis-à-vis the critique process. We ask our students to first explore, then conceive, evaluate and critically reflect before taking the leap towards making. I believe what you call for in your article is already happening, but educational organizations seem to only recognize growth when pivoting on the 3 R’s. Where I am frustrated in lacking acnowledgement, I am hopeful that steady systemwide progress will eventually lead to ours being recognized as more than innate filler, but as pioneers.

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