Addressing Contemporary Social Issues in Art Educators: A Survey of Public School Art Education in Georgia

Article excerpt

This descriptive research utilized a written survey to investigate the current attitudes and practices of Georgia public school art educators with regard to addressing social issues through the art education curriculum. Teachers' narrative comments along with basic descriptive data provided an informative image of teacher values, preferences, and practices in the art classroom, as well as the school atmosphere in which they teach. Generally the participating teachers voiced strong support for addressing social issues through art education, and often addressed social issues through art history content or discussion in art criticism or aesthetics. Teachers voiced concern regarding parental and administrative support for discussing sensitive social issues. Also noted was the lack of time for the development of appropriate teaching materials and adequate pre-teacher training, especially in developing mediation skills for dealing with sensitive topics during classroom discussions.

In October of 1999 the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that in several metropolitan area school districts numerous elementary schools censored an image from a fifth-grade social science textbook. The offending image was a painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze. In this well-known painting the ornamental orbs of Washington's watch fob are lying across his right thigh. The article reported that school districts' administrators feared that the imaginations of fifth-grade students might deduce that the general's genitalia were on display and cause disruptions in the classroom. Teacher aides in one of the school districts spent about 2 weeks painting over the offending areas in more than 2,300 books. Although this report was initially humorous in its absurdity, it is unfortunately symbolic of the climate in many of our schools today. Public schools in many instances have resorted to heightened repressive measures to suppress controversy and avoid confrontation.

There is little doubt that our schools can be violent and safety issues are paramount. A national survey in 1993 indicated that "nearly one in four students and one in ten teachers said they have been victims of violence on or near school property" (New York Times, 1993). Along with adolescent violence, public schools must address issues of drug abuse, high drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, and absenteeism, while often relying on diminishing fiscal resources (Giroux, 1988). Educators have become increasingly aware that public schools that can no longer be viewed as institutions insolated from the rest of society. While educators often point to the lack of parental involvement and support for education today, many parents blame schools for the lack of understanding, awareness, and care for individual student dignity and learning.

In a school culture dedicated to security and efficiency in operation, students may never bridge their ordered classroom experience with the chaos and complexity of life outside of school. Issues of personal freedom, moral and social responsibility, long ignored or avoided in much of education may provide the new locus for academic achievement. Such reform calls for a change in curriculum content and form, and in the active involvement with the community at large. As Purpel (1989) suggests, we cannot

continue the myth that educational problems are rooted primarily in professional and technical matters. When we finally give up the process of trivializing education, it will mean that we have taken seriously the propositions that education can make us free and wise, not just rich and smart. (p. 137)

Social Issues in Art Education Research and Theory

"Social issues" is as an umbrella term used in this study to denote collective concerns that exist in the public or social arena. In theory, personal concerns may become social concerns when they are shared collectively by a group or community. The connection between society and education is found early in general education in the work of John Dewey (1899) when he questioned whether the role of education was a function of society, or if society was a function of education. …