The Arts as Education or Another Special Interest Group

By Jane Remer

I was struck by Ed Pauly's keen observation about the arts "as another special interest group." It has been abundantly clear to me that if we continue to do (even twice as hard) what we've done before, we'll keep getting the same results. Translation: Deaf ears and impatience with more arts advocacy, more rationales for the arts, more attempts to portray the arts as miracle workers that claim, as former AERA president Eva Baker has said (I paraphrase): ...can do everything except wash my windows and clean my floors. As I have often said, the Arts Emperor has no clothes when desperate and far-fetched arguments are advanced to include them as instrumental to school reform, higher test scores, and global competition.

I think Ed put his finger on a very important and sensitive issue: Why, after all these years of advocacy, campaigning, claiming, and research are we still stuck in the rut of complaining about our relatively low status in the schools?

Why have there been no serious and sustained efforts to create a constitutency in the public schools who would champion the arts as part of basic education for every child?

Why have we settled for "pockets of excellence" as demonstrations of the learning power of the arts when what we have always needed to aim for was a critical mass of teachers, principals, parents, schools, administrators and students who, through their own school or community-based experience understood the value of the arts to cognitive, social, emotional and physical human growth and development in that artificial environment called "school?"

Let's take another look at Doug McLennan's phrasing of the question:

New research by RAND and sponsored by The Wallace Foundation suggests that a generation of Americans has not developed the knowledge or skills to engage with our cultural heritage. Without that engagement, the arts as we know them are unsustainable over the long run. Can anything be done?

First: It's not just "a generation" that has been skipped; the arts have almost never been part of the preparation of most teachers and their principals. Second: Do we really have a "cultural heritage" that is arts friendly? Isn't that part of what we've been trying to develop over all these years? Third: The arts as we know them are unsustainable over the long run: Perhaps they are,  perhaps they should be, perhaps not, but it sounds like we're prematurely lamenting the death of a civilization.

It's probably time that we faced the fact that Americans have not, as a whole, been "high arts" friendly for a lot of social, economic and historical reasons. Our fortunes generally rise in good economic times and falter or even fall out when money is scarce.

Perhaps it is time to accept the arts' position on the margins and to gather together with all our colleagues in the schools to talk about ways to systematically and intelligently incorporate them in the daily teaching and learning of our public schools. As I believe that change takes place one person, class, school, district at a time, we need to develop strategies for conversations with the only people, in the final analysis, whose championship and support will make a difference in the long run.

December 1, 2008 8:14 AM | | Comments (0) |

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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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