First, read this--Claus von Zastrow's brilliant, poignantly
hilarious treatise on why public schools and teachers just can't win, posted
last week on the Public School Insights blog. It encompasses the entire range
of criticisms--building yurts with tongue depressors!--and skillfully
illustrates the "painted into a corner" nature of being a public
school advocate these days. No matter what you believe, no matter how
thoughtful your research-based educational practice, someone disagrees.
Conflict over the role of the arts in intellectual
development and public schooling is one of the oldest of these squabbles. As a
music teacher, I was pink-slipped six times in 30 years and shifted to a new
position 17 times; I've spent a professional lifetime defending the necessity
of the arts in school curriculum, from every angle. As human beings, we were
created and designed to make representations--in sound, drama, movement and image--of
the things that matter most to civilization.
People who believe that children do not need well-designed
experiences with the arts to be fully educated are wrong. The evidence comes
from the fact that children spontaneously create art, music, dance and dramatic
play all by themselves, with no education whatsoever--and the all aspects of
human communication, from political to religious to commercial, revolve around
artistic expression. Developing aesthetic discretion is a useful skill, not to
mention a lifelong pleasure.
Yesterday, in the Washington Post, David C. Levy, former
director of the Corcoran Gallery and founder of the New School for Jazz and
Contemporary Music, takes on the challenge of flaws and gaps in K-12 arts
education in America. The piece starts strong--but then Levy jumps on the
knee-jerk teacher-blame bandwagon and claims that art education is suffering because school art teachers
are lousy artists--"many of them can barely draw." He attempts to
soften this indictment by mentioning that art schools are guilty, too: they
require a "smorgasbord of classes in unrelated media," making rigorous
training and serious specialization impossible. Then, he asserts that the
situation is vastly better for prospective musicians (who have a range of
"elite musical ensembles" with a "demanding meritocracy" to
sharpen their skills).
Levy's irritating and erroneous assumptions about arts
education pile up; he claims that schools don't stress artistic skill
development, preferring to let kids just "express themselves"--and
that most children begin playing musical instruments early enough to have ten
years of instruction with a competent professional before pursuing a music
degree. Perhaps in some major cities--but not in my world. Levy may well know a
great deal about the professional art and music world, but he's clueless about
the vagaries of K-12 scheduling, hiring and programming and regional support for the arts--not to mention the
nature of teaching large groups of children, where a jack-of-all-trades
artistic sensibility comes in handy, as does a bagful of tricks for keeping
"media" on the table, rather than in the hair or on the clothes.
The vast majority of kids learn to understand the making of art, and to sing, dance and
play an instrument, in a classroom. While there is certainly variance in the
quality of teaching, most arts teachers want nothing more than to develop
skills and excellence in their students, to ignite a musical or artistic
passion that burns well past graduation. Only three or four in 100 students will pursue
a career in the arts, but all of them need to learn some basic skills, as an
entry point to enriched taste and enjoyment. College-bound high school students
in traditional public schools have no room in their schedules to take a variety
of arts courses--even if their school offered them. Elementary schoolkids who get a 45 -minute
art class once a week are lucky, indeed. The picture, as Levy notes, may be
gloomy--but let's not point fingers at teachers.
In one of my districts' financial crises, a high school art
teacher who taught jewelry, pottery and graphic design was shifted to an
elementary art job (13 weeks apiece in three K-4 schools). As Fine Arts
Department chair, I was sent to make sure he was "doing a good job,"
since he was vocally disappointed when jewelry-making and graphic design
courses were dropped from the school curriculum. I watched him teach
perspective to first graders, their first art lesson with the new teacher. He
used words like "foreground" and "horizon," explaining as
he went along. They drew houses. Amazing, realistic houses. They were
incredibly excited, and couldn't wait to show their drawings to their parents.
I was beyond impressed, but he was nonchalant.
"Just basic art," he said. ”Anybody can teach
Image: Flickr Creative Commons, Jansen Mann