Jane Remer, Guest Blogger: The Arts Just Don’t Fit in Most of our Schools

Jane Remer’s Cliff
Notes (Number Three):  The Arts Just Don’t Fit in Most
of Our Schools


Face it: The arts still don’t fit in most of our schools and none of the
advocacy claims made for them have helped a whit in the last five decades. The
arts community – arts educators, arts organizations, artists who work with
schools, other friends of the arts–has tried and failed for years to make the
case for the arts in every student’s life and learning environment. Claims
abound for the arts as important intellectual and experiential domains as well
as exceedingly effective instrumental bridges to other usually non-arts ends.
These claims are rarely backed up by solid empirical research and when they
are, the evidence is overwhelmingly correlational, not causal. These claims are
almost never made by school people, K-20 and beyond, and only occasionally
uttered by policy makers, whether top down legislators or bottom up teachers,
leaders and district superintendents.


What’s going on here? After close to half a century of promise, inquiry,
research and development, assessment and evaluation, why does the arts
community persist in shouting its untested belief in the arts and their
influence on test scores, the local/national/global economy, or their power to
increase skills and abilities in other domains, both personal and scholastic?
And more recently, who do people who should know better claim that the arts
save lives, and yes, the world! Even the wonderfully simple ‘habits of mind’
(which are not exclusive to the arts at all) that my serious colleagues Lois
Hetland and Ellen Winner recently identified in their on-going arts research at
Project Zero are now being paraded on stage by arts enthusiasts as “proof” of
the ominpotential power of the arts to ….well, you fill in the blanks.


I am tired of it. I am coming to the reluctant conclusion that even
after all the time, money and people resources we’ve spent trying to encourage
the embrace of the arts as core education, we are as far from our goals now as
we were fifty years ago.  All the arts
for all the children – hah! It’s still some if any of the arts in scattered
pockets of excellence, for some of the children, some of the time, taught by a
combination of people who can rarely work together as a team and who prize
different means, methods, ends and purposes. Yes, I am speaking of the blessed
classroom teachers, arts specialists, artists and parents who often valiantly
try to design some kind of curriculum that makes sense but rarely meets the
rigor of national standards or follows a coherent course of sequenced study.


It has dawned on me, perhaps finally, that for a multitude of reasons
that I will try to address in the “near future,” the arts in America just
don’t fit well in most of our schools. I’ve been spending serious time recently
with principals, assistant principals, teachers, their students and visiting
artists in several of our inner city public schools. My colleagues and I are
trying to figure out how to make dance, theater, music or visual arts a
significant, integral part of the general curriculum for a significant number
of students in their schools. Every school is different but the question we are
asking is the same:


How do we endow
each child’s arts learning with gravitas, and get more kids, their parents and
the rest of the school community interested in exploring the cognitive, social,
emotional, spiritual and aesthetic rewards of full immersion, over time, in
this rich domain
. In other words, how
do we immerse kids in the many dimensions of arts learning such as making,
creating, connecting, performing, investigating, challenging and risk-taking
inquiry so they become connoisseurs (knowers) and masters (doers) in one or
more of the four major art forms?


I don’t know the answer to these questions. I have worked in an on-site,
hands-on, intensive mode for many years in New York City and around the country. It has
never been easy trying to make the case for a good fit of the arts in the
everyday classroom. These days it has become harder than ever, especially in
the inner city, and I suspect throughout the country in economically depressed
areas where the problems of schooling have intensified to an almost
unmanageable degree. So many of our classrooms are filled with students
struggling with mental health deficiencies, first or second language barriers,
physical or psychological disabilities, emotional traumas, violence or
abandonment in their homes, reliance on drugs and medications to make it calmly
through the day, and a host of other challenges to an environment for  safe, serious and uninterrupted learning. It
is a real challenge discovering ways to make arts learning fit gracefully into
this kind of environment.


Without the civic, political, economical and social infrastructure, it
is almost impossible for me to imagine a way through the thicket.  I for one don’t want to hang around for skimpy
handouts from the feds or count on other more New Dealish rescues which I don’t
see in my foggy crystal ball.


Less advocacy, more action, locally. That’s probably the best place to



We are at another rocky
precipice in our history that threatens the survival of the arts in our social fabric
and our school systems. The timing and magnitude of the challenges have
prompted me to speak out about some of the most persistent issues in the arts
education field during the last forty-plus years.

My credo is simple: The
arts are a moral imperative. They are fundamental to the cognitive, affective,
physical, and intellectual development of all our children and youth. They
belong on a par with the 3 R’s, science, and social studies in all of our
elementary and secondary schools. These schools will grow to treasure good
quality instruction that develops curious, informed, resilient young citizens
to participate fully in a democratic society that is in constant flux.

I have chosen the title
Cliff Notes for this forum. It serves as metaphor and double entendre: first,
as short takes on long-standing and complicated issues, and second, as a verbal
image of the perpetually perilous state of the arts as an essential part of
general public education. I plan to focus on possible solutions and hope to
stimulate thoughtful dialogue on-line or locally.


Jane Remer.jpgJane Remer has worked nationally for over
forty years as an author, educator,
researcher, foundation director and
consultant. She was an Associate Director of the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund’s
Arts in Education Program and has taught at Teachers College, Columbia University
and New York University. Ms. Remer works directly in
and with the public schools and cultural organizations, spending significant
time on curriculum, instruction and collaborative action research with
administrators, teachers , students and artists. She directs the Capezio/Ballet
Makers Dance Foundation, and her publications include Changing Schools Through the Arts and Beyond Enrichment: Building
Arts Partnerships with Schools and Your Community.
She is currently writing
Beyond Survival: Reflections On The
Challenge to the  Arts As General
. A graduate of Oberlin College,
she attended Yale Law School
and earned a masters in education from Yale Graduate

8 responses to “Jane Remer, Guest Blogger: The Arts Just Don’t Fit in Most of our Schools”

  1. How to instill in a child a meaningful relationship to the arts? This is a complex issue Jane Remer has outlined here clearly, intelligently, and with a passionate subtext.
    While we’re waiting for her ideas to be implemented–and, as she writes, it may be a long wait–how about this? Choose a child–your own, an acquaintance’s, or one found through an institution–who seems to be susceptible to a specific art with which you yourself have an ongoing, fervent experience. Act as the youngster’s mentor.
    Say the choice is the visual arts. Take the child regularly to short visits to different museums, saying, as Diaghilev did to Balanchine, “Look!” Do not “instruct” the child about what s/he is seeing but simply answer questions the child may ask or ask the child an occasion question about what the two of you are looking at.
    Provide the child with an opportunity to work with a variety of art-making materials and the opportunity to use them. Again, do not instruct except for technical advice when absolutely necessary–about how the materials work, not what to create with them. Never ask about the finished work “What is it?” At most say, “Do you want to tell me anything about what you’ve made?”
    Encourage the child to take some of the results home and display others in your own home or workplace so the child can see the value people place on them.
    When you’re traveling, say to the museum, with the child, comment about the ordinary things worth looking at all around you.
    This is not necessarily an expensive venture but it requires your time and commitment. At the very least the child will absorb the attention you’re offering her/her. And of course you will learn a lot from the experience.

  2. As a musician, I am curious: how does it work in Finland, or in Venezuela, to name two countries whose political and cultural leaders have managed to make the development of musical ability a national priority and even a point of national identity?
    Our inner-city schools are overwhelmed with the challenges of providing what we believe to be most basic educational lessons (i.e. the “3 Rs”) to kids whose home and neighborhood life isn’t a bit supportive of any of it. The arts may be a way to reach some kids to get them engaged in education generally, but there seems to be little if any evidence that it plays a significant role. So perhaps we should unburden the schools from much of the arts-education role in favor of a different model.
    I posted on another of these blog themes about the idea of expanding arts-participation opportunities for amateur artists. A decentralized, third-party, not-for-profit approach to arts education and engagement might be a better model than centralization of such curricula through the public schools.
    Do we value development of artistic ability beyond the capitalist model of audience appeal (i.e. sales) as the priority determinant? If so, the not-for-profit sector could provide a means for this, assuming that grant money can be developed for it. Is it valuable to us to identify nascent artistic ability in children in order to help find ways to develop it, even if the income-generating opportunities are typically quite limited? These are the kind of questions we should be asking if it is time to decouple arts education from the public primary and secondary schools.

  3. Bless Jane Remer for saying out loud the things that I suspect many of us involved in the arts and arts education and arts-in-education wonder. What a relief it might be to just relieve schools of the burden of trying to make arts education fit along with meeting a slew of unfunded government mandates, and what a relief it might be for those of us who keep trying to make it happen in a school or a district, who after some success find things all going away because of the next round of budget cuts or a change in administration. So what is the venue for making arts experiences universally available as the public schools historically have done? What are the new, creative, workable, accessible models?
    As far as economic benefit of the arts argument, there is some truth to the information gathered, but as in so much research on the benefits of the arts, desperately trying to explain why the arts are important to people who don’t really care, if one looks more objectively you can see that most of the economic benefits could be just as easily attributed to other activities. It simply becomes tiresome to yet again, breathlessly try to find the Universal Truth that will FINALLY make everybody see the unique benefits of arts experiences have for most anybody. Maybe the answer is to do it one-by-one. I don’t know. But please keep talking, Jane Remer!

  4. I was fortunate to be introduced to Karen Calhoun and this program at the Morrion Elementary School in Norwalk CA [just south of Los Angeles]. They are developing a program that uses arts education to teach students important skills that give them a foundation for their education, not just arts ed.
    I was impressed with their approach, their pedagogy and their documentation. The school has posted part of the information online. I thought there might be others that would be interested in this type of approach.

  5. The over all point made by my old friend Jane Remer is sadly true. Over the decades many of us have continuously heralded the value of the arts and made little head way in convincing “the system” that the arts are essential both in the development of humane individuals as well as to learning. Regardless, most of us lucky enough to have engaged in the arts know that the they teach important skills useful in themselves and beyond, however little this is understood by others.
    In fact, many studies provide windows into what that learning is, including the recent one she mentions by Hetland and Winner, even if they do not prove more than co-relationships or simple likelihoods. Few other aspects of the curriculum have been forced to justify their existence, and the fact that under funded, often sidelined but zealous art educators have undertaken studies should be celebrated. That they aren’t conclusive, and that what they say isn’t taken seriously, shouldn’t stop us from arguing the point of the arts’ importance to schooling.
    I would also like to call Jane’s attention to Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) which has all the hallmarks she wants in an arts program. VTS is finding its way into schools across the country because teachers love the way it brings visual art into ongoing classroom practice and because it has direct, documented impact on language development and thinking that transfers to other domains. Teachers see it again and again with their own students. An article that describes VTS and its multiple uses can be found in Eduopia: http://www.edutopia.org/visual-thinking-strategies-art-curriculum

  6. Hmm, I wonder how Einstein would respond to this. (Need I remind you, Jane, of my fixation with his simple reasoning when it comes to complex problems.) Maybe he would remind us that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them” or that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” But I would venture to guess that he would encourage us to consider that regardless of the endless obstacles we face, “the important thing is not to stop questioning.”
    Thanks for keeping the questions coming.