The Chords Behind our Riffs

By Laura Zakaras
I can't help feeling that what we're creating here resembles a complex piece of jazz, unfolding over days, with each of us improvising on a set of common chords, bringing in our own disciplinary perspectives and personal experiences, echoing when we can the notes others have played. For me, it's a great experience, both as a player and a listener. Stepping back for a moment, I'm going to try to identify the chords we're picking up on, the topics that recur--not all of them by any means, but the dominant ones. I'll also mention a few of the riffs to give a sense of their color and range.

What's the problem? This is one of our most recurrent motifs. We all seem to agree that too few children and young adults are getting any meaningful education in the arts. But there are other problems to address. Bennett adds that what they are getting is too narrowly focused on performance. Eric says that we do not prioritize the individual's artistic experience; I emphasize that we are not developing the individual's aesthetic capacity; Bau and John point out that arts education ignores ethnic culture. Richard describes "the arts education gap"--children in higher-income schools get more arts education than those in low-performing urban schools.

What's at stake? This is a largely submerged chord that I think needs more attention. Jane touches on the importance of the arts in the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of the individual; Richard also comes back to the fundamental well-being of our children. Eric emphasizes that the arts release the creative potential of the individual. Kiff mentions that she rarely has time to talk about the value of the arts--it's all about the arts as a strategy to promote other goals that government supports, such as student achievement and socialization. But notice that's not what we're worried about losing. We keep coming back to intrinsic benefits.

In our recent report and a previous report, Gifts of the Muse, we argue that the main benefit of the arts is the cultivation of our humanity. Besides providing sheer pleasure, arts experiences develop in us the capacity to move imaginatively and emotionally into different worlds (as James Cuno has so aptly described), to broaden our field of reference beyond the confines of our immediate experience; to exercise our capacity for empathy; to develop our faculties of perception, interpretation, and judgment; and to form common bonds of humanity through some works of art that manage to convey what whole communities have experienced. The reason we bemoan the decline in arts participation among the young is that it narrows opportunities for individual and civic development and spells the deepening of cultural inequities.

What's the goal? Several of us have argued that we should make the arts a part of the basic education of every child. Jane emphasizes that our objectives should be access, equity, and quality in arts education. Midori reminds us that the music education requires a myriad of programs both inside and outside the schools and its objectives are reconsidered and redefined by every generation. John, Eric, and Bau want to see the field move beyond the canon and embrace many diverse art forms and cultures. Bennett and Sam point to models of strong education programs--good teachers of genuine comprehensive programs who are the core of our strength--and argue that these are the foundation we should build on.

What are the barriers to achieving that goal? Another strong chord. Moy describes California's disinvested public school systems, high dropout rates, and short school day; Jane refers to some good books that describe why it is so hard to change anything in our schools; Ed points out that advocates for the arts have been tagged as a special interest group; Sam elaborates on how difficult it is to make progress in a policy environment that is dominated by advocacy that has no specificity or substantive focus (several picked up on the eyes-glaze-over riff); Jane says that arts educators will not gain respect and acceptance until the field figures out how to assess arts learning. And many point to fissures in the field over the purpose and methods of arts education that make consensus elusive.

What's to be done? Nearly everyone has picked up on this motif in one way or another. Eric worries that the arts community will never be able to gather any force through coordinated action. Others strike more hopeful notes, and they are all about developing collaboration. Ed and Michael emphasize that you build movements locally, pointing to the success of vast collaborative networks formed in Dallas, L.A., and Alameda County. Bob Morrison describes what collaborations at the state level have done and are doing now to improve arts education. And despite the problems facing California, Moy spells out the kind of broad-based coordinated effort that could make the arts a part of every child's school day. Eric, in the same post where he despairs of change, tells us that the National Performing Arts Conference, the largest gathering of arts leaders ever, identified arts education as one of its three highest priorities. Could this be the beginning of the kind of collaboration between the arts community and the arts education community that we envision in our report?
December 3, 2008 8:28 PM | | Comments (3) |


I am skimming this debate at a late hour, so excuse me if my comment reads as naive or simplistic. My observations seemed best placed here, even though the discussion continues on above for some time.

My observation comes from the perspective of a theatre manager and the father of a two year old and an almost one year old. It certainly is informed by my wife's work as the leader of a professional development organization for early childhood educators.

My children spend their days in a high quality child care environment. The building blocks of the arts - creative play, music, movement, elementary visual expression - are integral and intrinsic to the play that occurs in these classrooms, play that is intentionally cultivated to support my children's development. There is so much right about the learning going on in the classroom and the boundries, genres and specializations discussed in this lengthy blog are both obviously present in the play yet totally blurred. And most natural. Math is counting is music is rhyming is reading is pictures is color and shapes is drawing is writing is movement is dance is shapes is math is..... Abandoning a full aresenal of expression to fuel learning is a mistake. Infusing joy and creativity into learning is a right path. The child care teachers know how to do this. At what age do we start going wrong?

Beautifully done, Laura, pointing out that our input, like art, reflects our own thoughts, hopes, personalities, backgrounds.
And Eric's point is good, that the young have new tools that we might not recognize. This doesn't indicate departure, only change.
Continue this valuable dialogue.

Laura, really helpful synthesis--nice to see that research mind at work, doing a first sort of our disparate postings. Thanks. One tiny clarification. You write: "the decline in arts participation among the young." I don't think I or others have bemoaned this, and I personally don't believe it is so. This is one of those semantic stumbles. I do see (and I think so do the other bloggers who have mentioned this) a decline in young people engaging in what have been traditionally defined as the arts, but I doubt that overall they are less artistically engaged than previous generations, just pouring their artist-selves into other media and endeavors.

That said, I do see some differences in today's youth compared to previous cohorts. Most disturbing to me is a distinct decrease in comfort and capacity in metaphoric thinking. I think our aggressively literal and commercial culture has taken a toll, a serious and unconscionable toll, on the last two generations, and it is becoming increasingly visible to me in reduced capacity to create metaphors and discomfort in hanging out in metaphoric thinking and play.


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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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Bau Graves, Executive director, Old Town School of Folk Music;
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Greg Quinlan commented on The Chords Behind our Riffs: I am skimming this debate at a late hour, so excuse me if my comment reads ...

viki commented on The Chords Behind our Riffs: Beautifully done, Laura, pointing out that our input, like art, reflects ou...

Eric Booth commented on The Chords Behind our Riffs: Laura, really helpful synthesis--nice to see that research mind at work, do...