The Good, the Perfect, the Next Thing

By Samuel Hope

John Rockwell makes interesting points; the good/perfect admonition is a useful caution for any discussion about education. There is another perspective on his observations, however.

In the aggregate, arts education in the United States is a large enterprise with a number of sectors, each complex in itself. These sectors function within larger contexts. K-12 and higher education are two examples; social, cultural, political, legal, and economic are adjectives describing others. Each of these contexts has its own additional complexities, and of course, there are multiple interrelationships.

When trying to assist arts education from a policy perspective, which is what we were asked to do here, many of us have learned that this complex of complexities and all its various interests cannot be ignored without jeopardizing presence, much less goodness. We focus on these complexities and the puzzles they pose because that is where the policy problems are. Working from and with them is the basis for formulating solutions that have the best chance of long-term success, solutions that meet multiple objectives and support diverse efforts. Perfection is not even on the radar scope. Each puzzle always has too many dimensions; many legitimate interests need to be respected. Especially in large scale situations, perfectionism leads to utopianism which is never the basis for good policy.  When coupled with political power, utopianism usually produces dysfunctional tyrannies. Witness No Child Left Behind. Perfectionist goals belong in the individual and small group realm where they can inspire greatness if handled with care.

Even though it may not sound like it, the basic concern of those John chides a bit is to ensure that whatever is proposed or enacted do no harm to the good things that are going forward with the work of arts teaching in whatever setting and with whatever personnel, and to help more good things get started and flourish in perpetuity. All of us want to hear many more success stories like the one from Michael Hinojosa in Dallas.

The presence of complexity and discussions about it should not obscure the enormous amount of teaching and learning in the arts that takes place in the United States every day. We accomplish a lot more than we give ourselves credit for; we are Americans after all, and thus never satisfied for long. Our impetuosities, and over reliance on promotional bulldozers are not always productive. They often add unnecessary complications. They can be tragically destructive. Often, careful analyses of situations and ramifications, quiet diplomacy, attitudes of service, and sustained effort are the bases for making things better.  

Of course good teaching is a complicated matter as well, but not in the same ways as arts education policy. Vocabulary and scope are different. In teaching, immediate results appear most clearly as individual learning and achievement rather than as new or revised systems or improvements to environments and circumstances. The labyrinthine nature of policy is frustrating, but working it successfully can make an enormous difference for student learning whatever the setting. Bob, Richard, and others have given examples. 

All the above notwithstanding, John's post is an important one, because it reveals a need to communicate more clearly and directly about arts education policy issues and why they matter. This is not easy, but obviously those of us engaged with policy need to work harder on clear distillation. Another worthwhile goal to add to the list.

The next thing for me is to say thank you to all the bloggers and respondents, to RAND, Wallace, and ArtsJournal, and to Laura Zakaras and Julia F. Lowell for the report that got all this particular discussion started. And to say thanks for the opportunity to participate. I hope that everyone else has learned as much as I have, and that there are future opportunities to work together to leverage and grow our nation's considerable teaching capacities in the arts. To the extent we are successful, demand will surely increase. But even more important, individual minds, spirits, and capabilities will be enriched in beautiful and productive ways, and our abilities to help each other as artists and citizens will be enhanced for the benefit of civilization. Like so much in art itself, the result is worth the difficulty.

December 5, 2008 5:28 AM | | Comments (3) |


What a rich conversation! Thanks to all the contributors and to the Wallace Foundation and Rand. Another vote for the conversation to continue. I wanted to bring in the voice of some artists. These are quotes and a poem I have pinned up in my workspace.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
William Carlos Williams

Art is everywhere, except it has to pass through a creative mind.
Louise Nevelson

" "There is no use trying," said Alice; "one can't believe impossible things." "I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. " When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." " Lewis Carroll

There is no other place or way for us - or our children - to get this "news" except via the arts.

Frankly, I don't quite get the perfectionism concern. If we're talking about quality, well the discussion is about a continued quest to learn, improve, contextualize, etc. It parallels the work of those involved ininstructional content, as well as science.

If we're talking about policy perfection on the basis of access, access being whether or not students actually participate, as opposed to what most of the "audits" tell us, which is what is "offered," well then such perfectionism might be deemed to be the dismay many of us have over the number of kids who are not receiving a well rounded education that includes the arts. And, at least in the largest of the school "systems," that does in fact track to demographics. Many of us see that as a moral and human rights issue. But, I still wouldn't call it being about perfection.

I just found this entire conversation, by accident. I too would like to know what happens from here, because the questions raised here are the same under discussion with my graduate students and colleagues in dance education.

I appreciate the archival nature of the conversations, but as a teacher, citizen, and representative of the field, how about some sort of action plan?

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Robin Middleman commented on The Good, the Perfect, the Next Thing: What a rich conversation! Thanks to all the contributors and to the Wallace...

Richard Kessler commented on The Good, the Perfect, the Next Thing: Frankly, I don't quite get the perfectionism concern. If we're talking abou...

KarenDC commented on The Good, the Perfect, the Next Thing: I just found this entire conversation, by accident. I too would like to kno...