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In Defense of “Compulsory” Arts Education

So, I keep coming across this word.  “compulsory,” in connection to arts education.  Many of our major institutional funders (including, these days, government funders) look askance at funding youth arts engagement that is “compulsory” rather than “self-selected.”   Many audience members and supporters, upon finding out that we at Epic have major arts education programs, ask first “do the students choose to participate in theatre, or are they required?”  Well, actually, we do both.  But does that distinction somehow impact the quality or importance of the arts participation experience?  Why do we equate “compulsory” with “bad”?



Hundreds of NYC Public High School students engage in post-show discussion following DISPATCHES FROM (A)MENDED AMERICA.





The word is typically used in a very negative context, of course – with the definition of “required,” “obligatory,” or “enforced.”  Sure, we get a bad taste in our mouths when we think of “enforcing” participation in the arts – especially in underserved schools where arts instruction is not already a part of the curriculum – because the vast majority of art-makers tend toward a political value system that “encourages” much and “enforces” little.

Most of us would object to the statement “Arts education should be enforced in America’s schools,” or even “Arts education should be considered obligatory.”   But we seem to forget that another definition of “compulsory” is “essential.”  Would you object to the statement “Arts education should be considered essential to one’s education?”  Probably not.

But I’m going to push it further.  Why SHOULD we be so damn tentative about “forcing” young people to engage in professional arts experiences?  I’m comfortable with that word, if we have to use it.  What’s wrong with making sure young people do something we know is good for them?

I think we better consider this “self-selection” or “choice” that we’re trying to protect in 14-year olds.  Think back to when YOU were 14.  It may be painful, I know.  14 was, for me, defined by the view of a parking lot, through a chain-link fence, where I spent every lunchtime wishing I was anywhere but McKinley Senior High School, a place where I had no friends, or even really acquaintances.  Or by the sound of a young woman – let’s call her “Amanda,” the name of almost every young woman who broke my heart in Louisiana in the 1980’s – spontaneously laughing, the small gold crucifix on her chest bouncing, when I asked her for a date one day after Chemistry class.   It’s important, when we talk about what 14-year-olds should or should not be “forced” to do, to remember what it means to be 14.

Do you remember, when you were 14, EVER doing anything that you were not emphatically COMPELLED to do?  Whether by your parents, or teachers you were awed by, or peer pressure, or by your impressions of who you were supposed to be as gleaned from the media?  I was COMPELLED to skateboard because they wouldn’t let me on any of the teams at school, and I needed an athletic and social outlet.  Skaters could practice, and compete, basically anywhere where there was concrete, at any time, barring police intervention.  When a person slightly older than me showed me the “counter-culture” that came with skating, because my alpha-culture did not seem to accept me, I went with it.  As a result of being a newly-minted skater, I was COMPELLED to get my hair cut in a sort of unspeakable combination of a “loufa” and a “mohawk” because that’s what no one else in Baton Rouge, LA, had in 1985, and I had been told that I had to have what no one else had.   And I wore a pretty embarrassing combo of:

  • Willi Smith’s “WilliWear” pants – because that’s what my mom would consent to buy me at the department store;
  • Banana Republic t-shirts (back when they actually had animals on them – remember?), because I could afford them on my allowance; and,
  • An overshirt airbrushed with the cover of the Misfits 1985 “Legacy of Brutality” LP that I conned my skater-friend’s older sister into buying for me.  This guy at the mall airbrushed it for me from the album cover I had just bought at the record store!  (My skater-friend and his very pretty sister COMPELLED me to listento that LP, by the way)

Everything I did and was, it was because SOMEONE exerted a perfectly-placed pressure upon me.  I bet if you think back, the reason you are in the profession you are in has much to do with a COMPULSION someone successfully exerted on you.  And there are well-off schools, private and public, throughout the U.S. COMPELLING their students to accumulate arts credits in their curriculum, through their fully-staffed arts departments.

But there are also tons of 13-to-17 year-old young Americans today in schools without consistent arts instruction.  Often young people of color.  Often in communities without consistent arts access to supplement the lack of arts in their schools.  Imagine what they are being COMPELLED to do and be, and what therefore they will “choose” when they grow up.  It’s important, because there are about 10 million of them.  And they represent the only viable future our industry has.

Why exactly is it that we don’t want to “intervene” with our “compulsory” programs, which undoubtedly would help some of these young people discover a desire for engagement, innate talents, new levels of empathy, surprisingly viable but heretofore un-noticed career options?  Is it:

A lack of faith in our rigor?  Is creative engagement less rigorous somehow, embracing less “learning,” than Math?  Social Studies?  Literary analysis?  These are all COMPULSORY – why do we underrate our own academic importance?

That we want to be “liked”?  The nature of teens is that they must be COMPELLED to do anything that involves risk.  The sociobiological urge to fit in always wins out at that delicate developmental stage – in fact, even seemingly “rebellious” teenage behavior is a self-protection impulse – to fit in with the sub-tribe, or counter-tribe, if you see the primary tribe rejecting you.  It’s just self-protection.  They will NEVER NEVER NEVER “like” anyone who asks them to step outside of their comfort zone.  So working in America’s public schools as an artist is hard.  But once they’re challenged, and they’ve been forced to work hard to engage in professionally-authentic art-making, most teens will respect you.  They may even see you as relevant to their lives and to the future of their community.  Isn’t that more important, ultimately, than being “liked”?

Is it a kind of institutional class-ism?  Let’s be honest with ourselves.  Do we only WANT those young people who self-select for the arts because we know who they’ll be – what preparation they’ve had, who raised them and in what economic and cultural context, who they are likely to grow into?  Is it just easier for us to be around our own?

Are we just wimps?  Are we afraid to defend what we deeply believe to the bullies, the rednecks, the “tea-partisan” fools?  Are we afraid they’ll laugh at us when we assert NOT ONLY that we get to have our own space in well-off schools, but that we MATTER?  TO EVERYONE.

Whatever the reason, we have to begin to recognize the foolishness of this stance against “compulsory” programming purely from the point-of-view of self-protection – we need to build our customers of the future.  And we have to be brave and demand access to young people and the funding we need to reach them.   I guess I’ve always assumed that the vast majority of artists and producers are in the arts because they want change, because that’s the promise it holds for me.  But change requires risk.  Most school leaders want professional arts experiences for their students – so we have access to underserved young people across America ready and waiting for the positive growth that artistic participation fosters.  Young people poised to become the insightful, empathetic, empowered citizens that will build a new kind of economy, advance the causes of social justice, and shape a more engaged political and civic milieu.  They are waiting to embrace risk.  Are we brave enough to “force” them to recognize their potential?


  1. Blake Wilson says

    Thanks for posting this Ron….and a topic that I’ve wrestled with for some time. Having been a classroom teacher, a teaching artist, and more recently an administrator, I’ve seen both the pros and the cons of “compulsory” arts education.

    As I see it, reasons to SUPPORT compulsory are education are:
    -Students must be exposed to something before they can make an informed decision about whether they like it or not.
    -There are many students who ultimately benefit from (or enjoy) arts classes who might not have ordinarily chosen to participate on their own. I’ve personally seen this many times….and it when it happens it can be really powerful.
    -Creativity, more broadly, must be part of a well-rounded education.
    -The arts shouldn’t be just for those who are pursuing it as a career or as a hobby.
    -Even in a compulsory setting, a strong teacher/TA can find ways to solicit student input and help students to take ownership of the experience.
    -Arguably, the students who self-select tend to be those who “need” it least.

    Reasons against it (or challenges associated with it):
    -It requires really pro-active planning by the teacher or teaching artist….simply put, it needs to be really good or there is a big risk of having a negative classroom culture or having classroom management problems.
    -If the program is not successful, there is a risk of “turn off”….i.e.- students having negative associations with participating in the arts, and therefore making them less likely to participate or attend in the future.
    -Students who are uninterested can distract from (or water down) the experience for students who really do care. This is why it’s essential for the teacher or teaching artist to find ways to make the material accessible and keep students engaged.

    In short, I think compulsory arts education is a “higher risk, higher reward” proposition.

  2. Blake Wilson says

    Ultimately, this is why it’s crucial to have consistent, great arts education in the early grades…so that students are accustomed to it…and more likely to “choose” it as they get older.

    • Yeah, totally agreed – “choice” is contingent on knowing what is available and engages you – without early and consistent exposure, “choice” is a useless concept.

      • Blake Wilson says

        Yes. Which is why, on balance, I tend to think that there is a place for compulsory arts programs overall.

  3. My question is “What sanctions do you intend to impose on young people who fail to comply with forced creativity?”

    • The same sanctions that are imposed for those who fail to comply with forced Math, or forced Geography. It won’t be me or my organization imposing said sanctions, of course, but the school officials in the contexts in which we operate, but I will do my best to help them enforce such sanctions in a way that the young people who are being sanctioned understand why. Sounds like you are one of those doubters who somehow believe that creativity is less important to a child’s education than Math, or that engagement in theatre is not rigorous enough to qualify as an academic pursuit, no?

  4. To rewind a bit Ron – I am “one of those doubters” who trained to be a teacher during the progressive 70s and went into the classroom full of ideas and good intentions only to find that the thrust of the job was crowd control and that coercion doesn’t translate to true learning. I even attempted to “rehabilitate school phobics” until I had an epiphany and questioned the whole concept of schooling….. a bit like Ken Robinson but 30 years ago In the UK school isn’t compulsory so when we had our own children we knew we would educate them “otherwise”. Our local arts centre ran many high quality community arts programmes which our whole family participated in. No imposed curriculum or school timetables meant that we could thoroughly immerse ourselves in community activities. All three of our children helped in the vibrant theatre at the centre – a truly grass roots, multi-generational social enterprise. You say “I guess I’ve always assumed that the vast majority of artists and producers are in the arts because they want change……” Yes, and for me the arts offer tools for challenging assumptions and subverting outmoded institutions.

    • Very interesting points, and I appreciate your perspective. Unfortunately, from my perspective, I don’t see a way to subvert the undoubtedly outmoded institution that is the New York City Public High Schools and still reach the hundreds of thousands of young people of color for whom school is the only form of civic participation that they have access to. My 6-year-old goes to a extremely progressive public school that uses a really exciting curricular format where she is not comparatively-assessed (no grades) but assessed on her own individual progress, and which features almost no “coercion” in terms of what she chooses to learn. And I love it. And I’m glad I was privileged enough to be white, and earn enough to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and fight like hell, from a position of power, to get her in when she did not make it into the school on the initial lottery. So I don’t have to fight for change that I find meaningful for my child, as you did. What I’m fighting for (in the schools, in my organization, and in this blog) is meaningful change for those hundreds of thousands of kids not born into my place of privilege. And while I might philosophically agree that coercion often does not translate into true learning, these young people are already coerced into a particular mode of learning and confined within a particular set of assumptions of what they can do and be when they leave school – rigorous, professionally-authentic arts participation affords a way to bash a hole in these assumptions and modes, and I believe we producers have a moral responsibility to get our artists in there to do that! Thanks for your thoughts.

      • I admire your determination to change things from within the system. It’s inevitable that, as a conscientious objector, my professional educator and a community art worker venn diagrams barely touch these days. John Taylor Gatto tells it like it is. “Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood. School is too vital a jobs-project, contract giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be “re-formed.” It has political allies to guard its marches, that’s why reforms come and go without changing much. Even reformers can’t imagine school much different.”

        • Your (and his) points are quite true, I think – and it’s exactly what keeps artists out of schools, this notion that school is too hard for artists to have an impact in – “reforms” are always short-lived and doomed almost before they begin, because very few people want to do the real hard work that is required to change a system as massive as the school system. Obama won a Presidential campaign on the fundamental assertion that for America to work better, Americans would have to work harder. Once the voting was over, most Americans promptly turned to this same leader and asked him how he was making their jobs, and their patriotism, easier. This is where my preposterously-cursory understanding of Buddhism comes in handy for me – the idea that there is ONLY the struggle. The outcomes are not only irrelevant, they are inconsequential. Nothing “changes” but what you change in you. And that’s exactly WHY you can’t stop fighting.

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