Putting Gratitude and Realism in the Mix

By Samuel Hope
It would be wonderful to live in a time when the topic of arts education regularly conjured up thoughts and words of appreciation. Perhaps this blog's readers and participants can start a trend, beginning with thanks for those who spend every working day teaching one or more of the arts.  And, of course, continuing with gratitude to Wallace, RAND, and ArtsJournal for drawing attention to the perpetual work of teachers and its importance for the future of our nation's artistic life. 

Arts education for the general public is always a challenging topic, in part because the arts are so rich in content and connections with everything else, and because the arts are extremely accessible without study. Even though we have the National Voluntary K-12 Standards of 1994, prior to their appearance and since, many kinds of content, many different connections, and many different priorities for experience and study have become the bases for formulating and institutionalizing different purposes and concepts. The overall result: serious agreement that arts education is important, but serious disagreement about what it specifically should be. These fissures have already appeared in this blog. They are the reality that informs any large scale policy discussion.

Here is a thought experiment that may illustrate and illuminate one aspect of the present situation: Given that math is not art, but is definitely a "basic" subject, read the blog and the RAND report substituting math for the arts disciplines. Many questions will pose themselves. For example, would it be credible to argue before a local school board that because there are many purposes and applications for math, any one of them should take precedence over learning to do math itself?  For subjects considered basic in formal education, the subject learned on its own terms is considered the most authentic means for reaching all the other purposes, applications, and collateral benefits whether immediately, or later in life; there is no substitute for cumulative acquisition of basic knowledge and skills.

Here is a second thought experiment along the same line:  Take your favorite art form, pretend you teach it full-time in an elementary school. You have sixth grade class that has never studied your art form before; you have an unusual and munificent gift of one hour a day for two 15 week periods.  What do you want the students to know and be able to do in, through, and about that art form at the end of each of those periods?  How would you organize your time to accomplish your goals in terms of specific content and knowledge and skill development? Even though there are many good answers, working this kind of problem individually for a particular setting gives a new perspective on generic justifications and yearnings for better arts education. It shows that such generics are not the "it" of arts learning.  It includes the reality of time limits, and thus demands hard choices. For example, how much breadth, how much depth? How much emphasis on experiences that create good memories or serve other educational and social priorities, and how much on learning in the art form itself that provides the basis for going further individually in study, in understanding, in commitment, and hopefully in future informed participation?  Remember, the question in this experiment is what would you do, not what everyone else should do.
Of course, the same thought experiment can be conducted by changing the parameters such as art form, time, age, setting, prior experience, specific goals and so forth. The problem gets harder as the amount of time goes down or as a general culture of learning diminishes. Given the conditions outlined in the RAND report and being discussed in this blog, such thought experiments show the real challenges professional arts teachers face, especially those in the public schools, and may help lead to new levels of appreciation that could provide a realistic basis for greater respect, cooperation, and support from across the arts community as the RAND report recommends.    
December 2, 2008 8:42 AM | | Comments (2) |


Hi Sam,

All great thoughts.

One though worth diving into a little deeper (and I hope others will weigh in on this as well):

What happens if time and place are no longer restrictions and instead skills and knowledge are the focal point. If a student can demonstrate competency or mastery of a core subject (arts or otherwise) should that be enough to earn credit? Ultimately... should time and place matter?

We are grappling with this NOW as New Jersey moves toward implementing just such a policy (Extended Learning Opportunities)... so this is not a thought experiment... but a real one the state is about to embark upon and I would welcome this esteemed groups take on it... good, bad and all as we prepare to respond to thee State Board of Education.

Jane, Bennett, Others... please comment!

Sam, I really appreciated your thought experiments, especially the second one~

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This Conversation For decades, as teaching of the arts has been cut back in our public schools, alarms have been raised about the dire consequences for American culture. Artists and arts organizations stepped in to try to... more

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Bob Morrison commented on Putting Gratitude and Realism in the Mix: Hi Sam, All great thoughts. One though worth diving into a little deeper ...

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