Advocating for Arts in the Classroom: Academic Discipline or Instrument of Personal Change?

Article excerpt

Every chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts must advocate for arts education. The arts need a voice in power, say people in the field, someone in the corridors of influence to argue the benefits of teaching the nation's students about classical and jazz music, ballet, and sculpture. With No Child Left Behind (NCLB) emphasizing math and reading, business and manufacturing leaders calling for workplace readiness in our graduates, and politicians citing lagging international competitiveness in science and math, the Arts Endowment chairman must utilize the bully pulpit more than ever before. Dance, music, theater, and visual arts show up ever further down the priority ladder, and arts educators feel that they must fight to maintain even a toehold in the curriculum. The Arts Endowment chairman, they insist, must help.

It is no surprise, then, that in a November 2009 profile in the Wall Street Journal, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landesman offers pointed remarks when arts education comes up. Examine closely what he singles out about the field:

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When [Landesman] starts talking about his ideas for integrating the arts in education, his rhetoric becomes less bipartisan: "We're going to try to move forward all the kids who were left behind by 'No Child Left Behind'--the kids who have talent or a passion or an idiosyncratic perspective. Those kids are important too and they should have a place in society. It's very often the arts that catches them."

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The 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 NCLB 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."

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Saving Kids with Art

To educators outside the arts field, it sounds like an odd approach to a school subject. If you want to advocate a field, you have to justify it as a discipline. It has to form a body of knowledge and skills that students study at least partly for its own sake. In the case of the arts, a graduated curriculum would incorporate technical skills and art history and theory, just as English language arts integrate literacy skills and the lineages of English, American, and world literatures. Yes, arts learning may have social and moral and professional benefits, but if people don't value the materials of the fields themselves--if they can't say that if High School X doesn't acquaint students with Renaissance painting, classical music, and modern dance, its graduates will be undereducated--then arts educators lose in the competition for funds and hours in the day. Arts education remains an extracurricular, and school administrators focused on math and reading can push it aside: The arts are fine, so let kids who are interested in them study in an afterschool program like band practice.

The arts-saves-kids rationale crops up frequently near the centers of political power. I heard it repeated time and again while working on arts education policy at the Arts Endowment from 2003 to 2005. In gatherings such as the thrice-yearly meetings hosted by the Arts Education Partnership (AEP), a venture funded by the Arts Endowment and the U. …