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Bauerlein: How Not To Save Arts Education

Why do we want students to learn about the arts? Is it for their social benefits? Because they “save” students who are little interested in math or English? Because they teach tolerance for other viewpoints?

MBauerlein.bmpWhy are we all for arts education?

I’d guess that many (most?) Arts Journal readers don’t even think about the why. We just know the arts are intrinsically wonderful. But are we making the best argument for arts in education?

Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, doesn’t think so. In a recent post on his blog on Brainstorm, the group blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education, he offers “How Not to Save The Arts.” It refers, in turn, to an article he wrote for Education Next called “Advocating for the Arts in the Classroom.”

Bauerlein once worked at the National Endowment for the Arts (2003-05), under Dana Gioia, and he criticized current chief Rocco Landesman’s methods of advocacy:

[His] emphasis falls on the unusual student, the difficult kid, not on the arts as a subject for study. Landesman doesn’t defend arts education as a rigorous discipline that builds concentration and requires practice, practice, practice. Nor does he say, We need arts education to keep alive the legacy of American art–Thomas Cole, Martha Graham, Duke Ellington… He doesn’t highlight the provocative stuff with something like, We need arts education to train young people to comprehend innovative, boundary-breaking art. Instead, the purpose is salvation. Some students don’t fit the [No Child Left Behind] regime and other subjects don’t inspire them. Talented but offbeat, they sulk through algebra, act up in the cafeteria, and drop out of school. The arts “catch” them and pull them back, turning a sinking ego on the margins into a creative citizen with “a place in society.”

This view, Bauerlein believes, is a mistake — and so do I. If salvation is, for some, a byproduct of the arts, fine, but it’s not the reason to study them. (Nor, btw, is audience development.) Bauerlein continues:

It doesn’t insist upon the arts as a discipline, but rather sentimentalizes the arts as a salvation. (See the rendition of the hood “Carlos” in the event described in the essay.)  It doesn’t make other teachers in math, science, English, and social studies respect the arts as an integral part of liberal education. It makes them regard the arts as a vacation from standards and rigor.

Well said.   


  1. Unfortunately, the tendency Mark Bauerlein rightly laments is fast becoming the guiding principle among visual art educators. “Social justice art education” was the theme of this year’s National Art Education Association convention. It is also the subject of a special double issue, just published, of the association’s journal Art Education.
    On this misguided trend, see my recent articles The Hijacking of Art Education (Aristos, April) and The Political Assault on Art Education (Wall Street Journal, June 25). For the views I expressed in the Journal article, ArtsJournal blogger Richard Kessler (Dewey21C) dubbed me “the Joe McCarthy of Art Education”.
    Aristos is planning to publish a forum on the issues raised in those articles and will welcome contributions (up to 500 words) from interested readers—deadline September 15. Write to aristos[at]aristos[dot]org with “Forum” in the subject line.
    Michelle Kamhi
    Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  2. Mike Levin says

    You gotta be kidding about this strangely simplistic way of looking at arts education. You make it sound like a spare period for bored high school students. Arts education, as a necessity, is aimed at younger students. It teaches them psychological elements like executive function, a base for that virtually unknown ability to delay gratification. It teaches critical thinking that produces alternative systems to the mass-financial mentality that overwhelms our universities (the more elite the worse – read Chris Heges Empire of Illusion). And it teaches horizontal narrative, whereby I may not agree with you, but instead of using a Fox epithet, I have an ability to better see your point of view.

  3. He is wrong.
    The ability to solve problems starts with being exposed to manipulating hands on things. The art of manipulating starts in a music class; a clay class; a drawing class; a woodworking class; or a home economics class.
    The more time the young person has with discovering new ways to move ideas around, the higher their ability to solve problems in any field; math; science; socials sciences, et. al.

  4. Learning to draw teaches a very useful business skill: observation without participation. I once used this argument on Gray Davis when trying to get more funding for the arts in Ca., and he was astounded at the idea and we got some more funding.

  5. cecilia wong says

    “The ability to solve problems starts with being exposed to manipulating hands on things…a drawing class… a woodworking class…The more time the young person has discovering new ways to move ideas around, the higher their ability to solve problems in any field; math; science; socials sciences, et. al.”
    Right on, Vicci!
    Brain imaging has found that the part of the cortex that represents the left hand of a violin player is much larger than that of a non-player – action changes the brain.
    “Einstein is a scientist who relied heavily on spatial thinking and Picasso an artist for whom logical mathematical thought played a crucial role.” – Arthur I. Miller, in Space, Time, and the Beauty that Causes Havoc.
    Our education should start with the appreciation and action of making forms and shapes and rhythms – our common biological inheritance going back at least 2 million years, with the first humans. The current system of largely linear, top-down, forced memorization ignores this: the intelligence of our innate bodily senses.
    The best argument for arts education is a sort of complementary ‘horizontal’ learning opportunity, with multiple entry points, available in museums and other arts venues.

  6. Carol Fineberg says

    Why is it that when the value of an arts education (an education in, through and with the arts) is discussed/argued, the tendency is for advocates to fall into an either-or digression. The arts domains — music, art, dance, theatre, media, literature, writing — when taught well and experienced over time yield many gifts to those who engage in their study. Among the “first principles” of arts instruction, along with the first principles of all subjects worthy of study in elementary and secondary school should be content, process, and outcomes that stretch the minds, honor the craft and traditions inherent in each domain, and illuminate the inner and/or external worlds of students. Among the gifts that the arts offer some students is an opportunity to experiment, to “find their own voice,” to delve deeply into a subject about which they care, and to invent new forms that grow out of the traditions that they learn about. Who could argue with this? Plenty of so called educational reformists who really only care about preparing students for their notions of a work force! They have strong ideas about what that work force should be doing — whether in technology, science and engineering or in the so called creative industries. Other notions of what work is or may be are dismissed as not fitting into their instrumentalist vision of the purpose of PUBLIC schooling. Don’t ask them about PRIVATE schooling — that’s another matter. (See the writings of Mike Rose for more on this subject.) I am tired of seeing arts education advocates fighting with each other about the purpose of arts education. It gets no one anywhere but more deeply grounded in their own beliefs. So if Rocco wants to voice the views of a sentimental missionary, and he is received well by Congress, so be it. And if Bauerfein wants to remind us of the academic content of a strong art or music course, bravo to him too. Each must keep an eye on the folks he is talking to. Neither one is lying. Meanwhile, those of us closest to the teaching and learning in and through and with the arts need to focus on how to make our work ever more meaningful to young people finding their way in a changing world fraught with danger. Too much time is wasted on throwing rhetorical spitballs at each other rather than focusing on gathering evidence regarding how the arts link with our favorite rationale. There is room for many reasons to coexist as long as the process of arts learning produces the relevant evidence consistently. Peace everyone!

  7. Harvey White says

    I preface my remarks with a little background so you know where I am coming from – or the viewpoint from which I try to address this issue. I am not an arts professional in any way. I am a serious supporter of the arts – primarily theater and visual arts. I am a business person having co-founded 2 billion dollar technology companies.
    I am very concerned about the economic future of our country for everyone’s grandchildren or future generations in general.
    In this polarized country about the only thing about the economy nearly everyone agrees on is that our future success will rest on our ability to maintain our position as the (or at least one of the) innovative leaders in the world. We will not replace the industrial jobs we have lost unless we create new industries.
    Historically we were the leader in innovation – today we are no longer the leader and this will get worse before it gets better. We were the leader because our of the number and quality our technical graduates. Also we trained top foreign graduates and many stayed and founded new companies and industries in the US. We will fall behind in numbers just due to the much larger population of the emerging economies who are graduating multitudes in their own vastly improved universities. Thus we will no longer be the magnet for top foreign students and also the career and entrepreneurial opportunities for them in their native lands is greater than ever before. Add to this our stupid immigration policy that allows to educate them and then forces them to return to their home country to start the new industries and you can see how our role is declining.
    I firmly support the drive and emphasis on STEM education – it is necessary but but it is not sufficient. The eduction curricula must include subjects that use the “left” side of the brain. It is in exercising that portion of the brain that deals with creativity that develops people to be the innovators. History has proven this – look at the great inventors and you will find that in addition to their technical genius virtually all were involved in some artistic field.
    China and other emerging economies support arts education as an integral part of a child’s education because they believe it is important in making a person creative – a necessary component of innovation.
    But success in including arts in the US school system can’t be only pleas by mothers at the local PTA or school board or by arts organization professionals contending arts are good for the child’s overall well being. In today’s budget cutting/balancing environment one cannot count on a school board member, a congressperson or any government administrator to add arts back into the required curriculum based on those pleas or well being arguments.
    I am encouraged that some work is being done such as the Dana study and that Secretary Duncan recently said “…arts education is essential to stimulating the creativity and innovation that will prove critical to young Americans competing in a global economy.” We must let people know that what he said is true and the investment in arts education is identical to the investment in STEM education and is the necessary investment in our future.
    Clearly business needs to say we must have arts added to STEM to make it STEAM so they have the trained employees needed to keep our innovation at the level to allow us to maintain our standard of living for our future generations. The arts community, academia and thought leaders need to add their voice in jointly advocating the need that the reason for doing so is an economic and standard of living issue – not just an “its nice to have” issue.
    STEAM not STEM is the need!

  8. John Fairplay says

    I would strongly urge arts advocates to find some other way of promoting their interests. In particular, a way to reach children with arts education that does not require public resources. The general public sees the arts as “nice” and “pretty” but certainly not as practical. When times are good, the arts will be supported. In bad times, however….
    The public is souring on the idea that we must spend whatever it takes to turn every single child into a genius. The public is also souring on the idea that public schools must use taxpayer resources to cram every single subject possible into the curriculum. Public education is, and always has been, a zero-sum game. If we are to have more classes in the arts, something else must suffer. Until the arts community is ready to identify what other subjects in public education must be reduced so taxpayer resources can be spent on the arts, the best strategy is to figure out how to deliver the same product through a private means.

  9. Mark Bauerlein says

    One point I tried to make in the article was that the “social benefits” rationale for the arts may impress people of certain ideological temper, but it doesn’t impress teachers down the hallway. That’s my reply to Carol’s request that we respect different rationales for arts education. The social one, I believe, ends up damaging the arts as a discipline with full standing.

  10. I anyone wishes to better understand the “Root” of art as a political discussion, read the first chapter in the book titled
    “The Manufactured Crisis” by Biddle and Berliner, 1995.
    And in response to those who believe my statement to be “to simplistic,” here is another simplistic statement to ponder: any person who has not received an early education in creativity (manipulating things such as paint brushes, clay, etc), as adults, has no understanding of how this occurs. And therefor, if on a funding board, will not fund the arts. As a nation we have to turn this around, but only in small increments in one community at a time.
    Our country is owned by large businesses, not by its citizens. So taking artistic care of your community is all each of us has the time and energy to do.

  11. Since this blog started not with theories of education, but with the question of advocacy, I think maybe we should look more closely at how Bauerlein’s NEA compares with Rocco Landesman’s.
    Bauerlein’s work certainly must have contributed to the survival of the NEA (for which much thanks), but it continued to be a chronically underfunded institution for which restoring funding for individual artists was not a priority. Landesman has chosen to tackle these problems by creating unprecedented funding partnerships with a range of government agencies which, if successful, will bring funding available to arts organizations and arts education initiatives – and, maybe, just maybe, one fine day, individual artists – to a new level.
    In this respect, if I were Chairman of the NEA for a day, and entering a meeting to propose a funding collaboration with, say, a health and social services organization, I’d much rather be Landesman than Bauerlein.
    For me, since Rocco is so ready to roll up his sleeves and go out and dig up new ways to provide more money quickly for the arts on every possible level – which is exactly what those of us struggling to secure the survival of our arts organizations need right now – I’ll put my money on the Rocco NEA.

  12. John Abodeely says

    I would echo and applaud the comment posted by Carol Fineberg. Fineberg encourages us to marshall the plethora of reasons for arts education funding, policy, and provision in a unified and strategic way. She encourages us to dismiss the divisive politics internal to our community because they divide our efforts. Indeed, the communities in the US that have made headway in providing more and better arts education to more children have operated as a unified front. They have rallied the nonprofit arts, teaching artists, philanthropists, educators and other constituents of public education, education and arts advocates, and others into a single unit working for children. It is strange that we feel we must choose one strategy or another. It is strange that we lack the political instincts to better meet decision-makers such as the USDE, Congress, a superintendent or others where their interests and needs lie.

  13. This ongoing conversation heartens me, as I believe that the more we discuss what we do and why, the more focused we become in our own work. I do, however, follow Carol Fineberg’s line of reasoning in that if there are multiple benefits, then we should use all of them to advantage, fitting each to the situation in which it belongs. My personal point with this is, instead of always trying to fit the arts into an education system that is out of date and struggles to engage and educate students well, maybe we should be also advocating for the education system to become more diverse in its approach, like the arts. If the arts are engaging because they are socially oriented, are relevant because they build strong creative and innovative skills and are a ‘salvation’ to those who other methodologies don’t reach, why shouldn’t math and science be the same? If we wish to be a country that produces skilled scientists and artists, then rote-learning, didactic methods of teaching that are hammered through endless tests doesn’t seem very appealing. When the ‘test’ is an artistic product that is socially engaging, enjoyable and demonstrates learned skills, then I believe education would be a more desirable experience.
    I ask that we not denigrate the positive outcomes of engaging in and through the arts, whatever they be. I ask that we focus on specific aspects as needed for specific conversations.

  14. Jim VanKirk says

    The rigor argument doesn’t do much for me but I am so relieved that noteworthy Arts professionals are beginning to question the “Art as caretaker,” theory.

  15. Arts education, especially at the K-12 level, should not be about creating artist-specialists who can enter the world of commodified art that dominates contemporary American society. It is about communication, collaboration, observation, cooperation, and being part of something larger than you. It is also about being a citizen. The arts are a way that a community creates meaning — not some fetishized product that is sold to people as a substitute, although that is what it has become in our commodified society.
    In “Engaging Art,” Stephen Tepper writes brilliantly about the place the arts used to play in the life of the family and the community, before recording and mass media told people that they were only allowed to create art if they were virtuosi. Today, “American Idol” send the same message: how DARE you sing if you aren’t going to be a star.
    Yes, the arts are disciplines, but they are also a means of expression. The focus on skills misses the point: people need to tell their stories and hear the stories of others. Doing so creates meaning and strengthens community. And yes, it allows the alienated a voice that might make them better able to become part of the community.
    This Kantian idea of the arts as “useless,” which is reflected in the focus on technique over content, has distorted the arts beyond recognition. Art education isn’t about creating little artists.

  16. The rigor argument doesn’t do much for me but I am so relieved that noteworthy Arts professionals are beginning to question the “Art as caretaker,” theory.
    Mr VanKirk, I’ve been working in the arts for decades and have never come across anything that would credibly qualify as an “art as caretaker” theory. Please explain.

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