MANY FORCES SHAPE THE CURRENT NATIONAL CONVERSATION regarding career and technical education (CTE). Perkins IV guides the discussion through concepts such as challenging academic and technical standards; high skill, high wage, or high demand occupations; and programs of study. High school reform models abound; CTE plays a major role in many of them--highlighting its capacity to bring relevance to abstract academic concepts, to motivate all youths, especially those identified as at risk, and to raise the aspirations of all students as they empower themselves to achieve their life goals.
Workforce development and training, the economic recession, unemployment rates, the Workforce Investment Act and Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorizations, and globalization and outsourcing provide other strong undercurrents to the national CTE discourse. Amidst all of these currents, CTE struggles to find its identity. For decades, the visual and performing arts have fought a huge battle to define themselves and reestablish a prominent place in the minds of educators, administrators, parents and government officials. A brief understanding of this struggle may provide valuable discussion points for CTE.
The Many Roles of the Arts in Education
Throughout the history of Western culture, the performing and visual arts have held many roles. Sometimes the arts have occupied a role at the center of education. For example, Plato spoke of music as a definer of character wherein each class in society must listen to different types of music to prepare them for their roles; the ancient Greek culture established music as a vital part of the curriculum alongside geometry, astronomy and arithmetic, collectively called the quadrivium. In the modern era, the Cold War brought about a heyday in the arts as Western culture associated classical music with the trumping of capitalism over communism. In 1958, at the first Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, Van Cliburn, a Texan, won first prize with all Soviet judges; he was granted the only ticker tape parade in New York City ever given for a musician.
Holding a central role in the curriculum, all students were served by the arts. Everyone had a foundational knowledge of the importance of the arts but it took time and cost money. During periods when both came into short supply, the arts were unable to maintain their central role.
The arts were also at times included in the curriculum as a trade. The Renaissance guilds and their corresponding apprenticeships included those of musicians, painters and sculptors as well as brick masons, bankers and woodworkers. Seventeenth century musicians were trained from childhood to fulfill roles as court musicians; in the nineteenth century, Felix Mendelssohn established the first music conservatory specifically to train students for musical occupations. People served by this model included only those of self-or family-identified occupational choice. On the positive side, this was specific, high quality training for a select few and it raised the level of excellence in the discipline. However a separatist mentality persisted and the arts were seen as something for special populations only.
The arts have also served as an elective. As part of a liberal arts philosophy, the educational goal is well-rounded individuals and that includes the arts as a possible avenue of exploration. Liberal arts curricula always included courses in music history and arts appreciation as part of the optional menu. This role dominated the mid-20th century high school landscape where students were often identified as "band kids," "thespians," "geeks," or "jocks." Those who found motivation or belonging in the arts were served well therein, but the vast majority of the entire student population lacked an understanding of the arts' importance to their lives.
As interdisciplinary "glue," the arts are used to develop cohesion and connectedness between the parts of the curriculum. …