What Does Arts Education Mean?



This may be one of my few posts of the day — the same obligation that minimized my writing time yesterday will also minimize my writing time today. But I did want to opine on something before another day passed. Late last week I read a post on Dewey21C, a blog on arts education, that has gnawed at me ever since. It’s a guest post by Jane Remer; the blog itself is maintained by Richard Kessler, who, per his bio, is “executive director of The Center for Arts Education, the non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating, restoring and sustaining arts education as an essential part of every child’s K-12 education in the New York City public schools.”

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I am a product of the New York City public schools — good, bad, right, wrong, angelic, evil and otherwise. But for all the positives and negatives I could offer about the school system, and for all I could say about its shortcomings back in the day (I was in the first grade in the mid-1970s when horrid budget cuts decimated the system), I would not have gone into the arts had I not been in it. Artistic endeavors of some kind, from finger painting to a class recital of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” were always a part of my classroom experience. When I was in fourth grade, I remember that due to budget cuts, teachers’ time and skills were being stretched very thin; my particular teacher, Mrs. Feder, would vanish for about the length of one period to, I think, take a break. What I remember more specifically is that those period had to be covered by another teacher — I think the term they used then was “cluster” teacher — who in my case was Benjamin Finn, a World War II veteran who wrote and adapted plays and musicals for kids. And who, if memory also serves, had some relationship or other with the Board of Education’s TV station, Channel 25, known today as WNYE.

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Anyway, Mr. Finn walked in to cover our class one day and announced that we’d be working on a play to be shown publicly in the auditorium for several performances at the end of the school year. The play was an adaptation of I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” that was sort of generously mixed up with elements of Singer’s “The Wise Men of Chelm.” I suppose you could say it was a bastardization, but we didn’t know anything beyond the dialogue on the page. It didn’t matter. Also, I couldn’t tell you what made me do it, but something inside of me made me audition, and before you could say “Where’s my borscht?” I was cast in the lead role of Gimpel and came to enjoy appearing in performances of our lovely 30-minute play that May. Fifth grade and then the sixth grade brought many similar experiences courtesy of Mr. Finn, including working on a weekly radio news program that he supervised, broadcast throughout the school each Friday and for which I served as part of a team of “reporters.” With certainly very little in the way of resources, and the ability to be tremendously creative despite some handicaps in personality that made him Gimpel’s equal, Mr. Finn introduced scores of us to the arts. On a personal note, I have a wide range of feelings about Mr. Finn and I guess I always will. But when the story of my life is written and someone asks how I became interested in the theater, there is only one answer. The credit or blame (and it may be both, depending on my mood) squarely goes to him.

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And so given my experience, and given what I have observed from countless other students during my own years in school and beyond, Remer’s post on Kessler’s blog really kind of confused me. Actually, it infuriated me. She begins with what she believes, no doubt, to be a statement of fact:

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.

I have to just say — I have read this opening statement about nine times and I still find myself in utter amazement. My reactions have ranged from “How dare she?” to “What an idiot!” to a much more measured “Maybe I fail to understand her use of the term “advocacy claims.” In the end, though, I keep coming up with the same thing: “What?” But Remer goes on:

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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.

Here I am both full of conviction yet vaguely aware that I am out of my element. I would be foolhardy to suggest that I have pored over empirical research or that, having done so, I could neatly refute Remer’s correlational vs. causal argument. But the last sentence — talking about claims of arts education being a success by “top down legislators or bottom up teachers, leaders and district superintendents” — has one very glaring and unforgivable flaw: Nowhere is the student mentioned. Why are students the last to offer feedback on anything? Why do so many teachers treat the student like he or she doesn’t matter? Why are so many teachers arrogant this way? Who do they think they are? Yes, indeed, how dare she? How dare she suggest that in my case, and in dozens of cases I could cite anecdotally from my years in a creative industry, that arts education had no effect, no influence on me — on the way I learned to learn? It’s absurd and it’s dumb. It’s facile.

Remer, as you read more of her piece, sounds like she’s infected with Cynical Disease and forgot to take her daily dose of TamiSkeptic. Obviously far more informed about the history of arts education than I am, she announces that she is no longer an acolyte of the idea that the arts can have significant “influence on test scores, the local/national/global economy, or their power to increase skills and abilities in other domains.” Her post, begun with the unproven “Face it” line, now turns increasingly sarcastic. Rather than all children interfacing in some manner with the arts, she loudly laments the state of arts education in the U.S. today, suggesting it has not progressed meaningfully in last 50 years; that it’s “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.”

Well, may I suggest that we not blithely, with the flick of one’s increasingly grizzled hand, dismiss the good work of the people who have proven their worth in those last 50 years? May I also suggest that while it may be desirable for arts education to interface with all of the children, all of the time, this issue has equally been a matter of funding as well as methodology. For Remer to fail to acknowledge that is disingenuous in the extreme. She should know better.

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And perhaps I’m not as intellectually endowed as Remer, but I fail to comprehend how the prizing of “different means, methods, ends and purposes” is a detriment to learning. Why is it not “vive la difference” for arts education –what’s so extraordinary about “vive la standardization”? National standards are idiotic because, in addition to inculating in the teacher the idea of teaching to the test, they fundamentally fail to take into account cultural differences across the nation. That’s why No Child Left Behind is yet one more misbegotten legacy of the Bush Administration. Let Remer cast her fate with the academic waterboarders all she likes. Not me.

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Remer begins winding up her post by asking this very good question:

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?

And I am not going to attempt to answer it either qualitatively or quantitatively (indeed, Remer’s next paragraph begins “I don’t know the answer to these questions”). But I do want to make a few points. When she writes that it has “never been easy trying to make the case for a good fit of the arts in the everyday classroom,” I wonder to whom the case is being made. Is it always the same case for the same audience — for teachers or parents, for principals and superintendents, for students and legislators? Should it be? Perhaps it should not be. Perhaps the problem today is classrooms “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,” as Remer suggests. All right, that’s fair. But while I don’t remember that litany of social ills being present in the classroom when I was in school (I entered elementary school in 1973), you know what? It likely was. I bet it was as bad then as it is now or worse in some ways. We didn’t have enough teachers, let alone good ones. We had 50, even 60 kids in a classroom, and if Remer wishes I could pull out my class photos and show them to her. We didn’t have enough resources or enough, really, of anything. But in Mr. Finn and in teachers like him that I met all throughout my years in the New York City public school system, they had creativity — they possessed the right to be creative. They weren’t hamstrung by academese, power grabbing and overemphases on empiricism. They looked, my God, at the children themselves! Remer says she has spent a lot of time with students. But somehow I think she walks into the classroom with her mind already made up.