Recently 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) |
The RAND report that is the catalyst of this blog is about increasing public demand for the kinds of artworks usually identified as outstanding examples of art and design, dance, music, theatre, creative writing, film, and so forth, and combinations thereof in all their glorious variety. The  report's treatment of and positions on arts education is in terms of reaching this specific goal, even though it represents only one important purpose for arts education.

So, another thought experiment:  To what extent do you believe that the public demand goal espoused by this RAND report can be reached faster or more efficiently without public education in the arts disciplines on a significant scale? For example, would subsidizing admission fees, raising expenditures on advertising exponentially, pushing the arts as a brand throughout all education without worrying about arts discipline content, relying heavily on political symbolism, promoting friend-to-friend marketing, etc. be more effective short- or long-term?  In other words, to what extent and in what areas are RAND's recommendations wrong?   As you think about this, please consider the following two paragraphs.

Whatever your answer, many professionals with high levels of arts education, training, and commitment are going to continue teaching the arts to the public from their various disciplinary perspectives, including performance, to as many people as possible. These professionals serve as instructors in community schools of the arts, private teachers of the arts, arts specialists in public and private schools, professors leading collegiate arts courses for majors in non-arts fields, and usually supplementing sequential education,  the educational staffs of art museums, theatres, opera companies, etc., arts critics and writers, and artists who teach part time. Richard Kessler's term "evergreen"  is credible because of the work of these professionals over many decades. While reports, projects, and meetings come and go, funding is fickle, and the hockey puck with the "latest thing" written on it moves from place to place, these folks remain at their tasks.  There are tens of thousands of them, and to one extent or another, each group of them is organized.  In an overall sense, each group knows what to do, and members work at getting better all the time.  

Whatever your answer, success with the RAND report goal in any given situation still depends fundamentally on specific choices about content, whether you want to base the effort in formal education or not, or even if you want to marginalize education altogether.

Thanks to Jane Remer for urging realism about prospects for educational planning on a grand scale.  The RAND report proposes state and local efforts to help the professionals in paragraph three above to work with greater synergy where they are.  For me, the best next steps would be working on ways to make this happen, ways that improve conditions long term and avoid threatening the fragile existence of delivery systems critically important to the mix. 
December 4, 2008 9:55 AM | | Comments (0) |

I thank Eric Booth for his comment about my first post, his additional thought experiment, and his pioneering work in creativity across the curriculum. My post below provides an explanation and an example, not a critique of an approach he is developing. I applaud Jane Remer for her forthright comments about quality, another word that becomes empty if it is not connected to something specific, something more than a process--a testing system, a portfolio, an institutionalized yearning. Having conducted Eric's thought experiment and considered Jane's research proposal, I find comfort in being flexible about methodology or time patterns, because as long as the time, method, and expertise are sufficient to the task, many approaches work. If first decisions center on content and knowledge and skill development, the "what, " then the "how" questions seem to start answering themselves, even with the particular opportunities and constraints that are givens in virtually every local educational setting. Gratitude also goes to Bennett Reimer for giving a practical example in advance of this post of what I just wrote about the what/how relationship, to Richard Kessler for the Shankar quotes about the strategic importance of the public schools, and to Bau Graves and John Rockwell for urging bloggers to broaden their scope. Yes, P-12 schooling is just a part of a much larger whole. More on that later. 

My response to Bob Morrison's thoughtful question is that many different means can work if, and only if, all the conditions and resources necessary to that means are present. Systems based on summative competency testing have been successful at Oxford and Cambridge for centuries. However, the higher the achievement expectations, the more help most students need. This help may come in many forms, including electronic ones. Oxbridge uses an extensive tutoring system. The specific organization of time and place don't matter nearly as much as creating and maintaining successful correlations among the nature of the subject matter, specific content, and the learning and testing approaches.

If I were advising our colleagues in NJ, I would indicate that inexpensive, multiple choice examinations will not suffice as revealers of arts competencies of a creative or scholarly nature and that there is a need to avoid the unintended consequence of further privileging disciplines easily and cheaply tested. Given present cultural and values conditions, I would ask them to factor in concerns about relying heavily on every student's motivation to learn privately, and about the ability to maintain high levels of aspiration, especially if many students fail and parents start exerting political pressure. I would try to help policy makers remember that process alone is never enough and that pretending that it is usually leads to failure.

December 3, 2008 11:26 AM | | Comments (1) |

The question has been raised about why "eyes glaze over" at the mention of words like "arts," "creativity," and "innovation." Surely there are many reasons, but one stands out as worth considering in this discussion. These words and many others like "critical thinking," "transparency," and "accountability" lose communicative force when they become generic surrogates for goodness but are rarely connected to something concrete. The more ubiquitously they are used without such a connection, the worse the communication problem gets, and the more eyes glaze over when they are offered promotionally or in justification. Eventually, a given word wears out its welcome, and another one replaces it. The long-term result is a parade of ultimate emptiness where each word or slogan constitutes a float that at first seems brilliantly real, then a caricature of itself, and finally a ghostly apparition with all substance, value, and meaning leached away.

It is hard to sustain advances in educational achievement in a policy environment heavily influenced by this syndrome and its adverse impact on clarity and substantive focus.

To illustrate further, let's consider creativity. Building on what Bennett Reimer wrote mentioning Howard Gardner, creativity can be viewed across the spectrum of human action; it is not exclusive to the arts. Even though none of us would recommend it, student creativity can be encouraged without any arts references at all. It can be "taught" by teachers of many types and specializations in ways that do not lead to any residual learning or conceptual expansion in any aspect of the arts. Developing greater understanding of creativity is surely a good thing, but a school agenda that gives a high priority to creativity does not lead automatically to arts teaching and learning of any kind, or of any form, or in any time frame.

Creativity becomes noticeable, important, and real when someone makes or does something creative in some specific field or discipline. While developing a more "creative" environment in schools is to be applauded, eventually a strong connection must be made between creativity and one or more bodies of content if an individual is to mature in creative work through high school and beyond. Creative potential rises as capabilities grow in some particular thing.

As Midori points out so gracefully, all artists experience the deep symbiotic relationship among creativity, knowledge, and skills. Each of the three lifts the others toward ever higher achievement. Theoretical physicists, investment bankers, surgical pioneers, entrepreneurs, diplomats, historians, and other deep-knowledge professionals have the same experience. The writers for this blog could not communicate with the creativity and eloquence they exhibit without high levels of knowledge and skills in English and years of practice with the language. The same connections work at elementary through advanced to genius levels of competence in all disciplines and professions. But so much talk about arts education seems to minimize or avoid knowledge and skills development and practice as though they were in the way. Experiences and personal reflections about them are essential, affection for certain genres or artists is an important base from which to grow, but neither of these is a substitute for the daily study and work that leads to knowing more and being able to do more each day in one or more specific aspects of the arts.

December 3, 2008 9:03 AM | | Comments (2) |
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) |


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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