The History of American Art Education: Learning about Art in American Schools

Article excerpt

Smith, P. (1996). The History of American Art Education: Learning About Art in American schools. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press. 252 pages. (ISBN 0-313-29870-X).

For many people, reading history is often boring, dry, or hard to follow. I always struggle not to fall asleep when countless facts and dates are used, and I force myself to maintain a visual image of the timeline being presented in order to enhance my memory. This is not the case with Peter Smith's history. I found it to be daring in its content and fascinating with its teaching-like approach to comparative analysis. It struck me that the author had extensive first-hand knowledge of the subject based on both primary source research and personal experience and involvement.

This is by no means a complete history of art education in America, but it certainly expands the reader's viewpoint and understanding of the field. Smith explores the writings of contemporaries including Eisner, Efland, Zimmerman, and Stankiewicz and questions the validity of some of their specific contentions. This is what makes this book so daring. The author comments on theories, philosophies, or findings of many historians who are still prominent. For example, in the introduction Smith takes issue with Eisner's assertion that art education history studies (or any other art education research for that matter) should aid practically in the correction of current problems. Instead Smith suggests that art education historical research serves as a framework from which to judge through critical examination. He asks the question, "What does this event, person, or movement tell us about learning about visual art in America" (p. 10). He explores the context in which individuals' philosophies and teaching methods were used. He explores the language in which materials were originally written. He gives sources and introduces important paradigms to be considered in doing research. The main contention is that historical research "might affect the way art teaching and learning is conceptualized as it is practiced at the present" (p. 6).

While the ultimate question seems to be: "What is the basis of American art education and from where did it come?" each of the 12 chapters focuses on a specific issue related to this major question. For example, Chapter 1 is a refreshing discussion about cultural concerns in the recording of art education in America. Smith recognizes that people of the dominant culture regard the United States as a nation of white persons of European origin, and have therefore discounted the voices of Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and others. These cultures have produced aesthetic objects and images as an integral part of their experiences.

Throughout the book Smith focuses on the Germanic foundations of American art education and on the American art educator's ignorance of the assumptions behind many present-day teaching practices. Although some are speculative, his contentions are eye opening, questioning, and convincingly plausible. Smith suggests that the German influence was due to intellectuals fleeing from Nazi control. Smith states:

that a vast area of fundamental importance to art education has been hidden from Americans who cannot read German. Much German language material that served as the basis of art education publications in the United States remains to be translated, and only if it is will Americans be able to build a complete picture of the foundations on which American art education stands. This is the material on which Lowenfeld, Schaefer-Simmern, and Rudolf Arnheim built. (p. 56)

I found Chapter 2 particularly interesting. Smith compares the writings of seven historians as a framework to explore the contributions of Walter Smith. The author leads the reader to the conclusion that even though educational historians may use interpretive methods derived from historic evidence, these historians may arrive at different conclusions that are not necessarily subjective, but rather provide an "explanation that could help us understand our times. …