Is arts education alive and well? Perhaps—depending on what angle you look from.
To many, including both advocates and the general public, the arts are seen as a curricular stepchild, a marginalized afterthought in the school schedule—the first to go when budget cuts need to be made. And this is too often the case. Yet, in many, if not most, independent and suburban public schools, the arts exist and often thrive with excellent resources, inspired teachers, and significant space in the schedule. In addition, many of the children in those schools also have access to abundant out-of-school arts learning experiences—lessons, trips to museums and concerts, the use of art supplies and instruments, and so on.
But in urban and rural public schools, the situation is quite the opposite, though certainly with notable and inspiring exceptions. This is not surprising. In America, people in economically struggling communities and people of color hardly get the essentials from our public institutions—housing, health care, education, the “justice” system. Clearly the arts are no exception.
Looked at from this angle, arts education in the first quarter of the twenty-first century does not paint a promising picture. Seen from another angle, though, there is more hope.
24/7 Anytime Anyplace Arts
Artists and educators know well the human drive to create and engage with art. Many of these artists and educators, along with community members and philanthropists, stubbornly and heroically work to keep or reinvigorate the arts in urban and rural public schools through integrated curricula, innovative partnerships, artist residencies, and any other strategy they can invent. Many have also turned to settings outside of schools—museums, performing arts centers, community centers, hospitals, prisons, GED programs, and any other place they can find to offer learners of all ages access to the myriad pleasures and challenges of playing, working, and learning in the arts. These arts educators are committed to meeting their students where they are and when they are free to explore their interests in the arts—after school, in the summers, during vacations, and online.
In this way, the field of arts education is expanding to include far more settings, and it is also expanding in many other ways, including its roles, relationships, influences, and purposes. Here are just a few of the ways in which the field is evolving in these first decades of the twenty-first century:
Expanding the Embrace
New insights from neuroscience and education research into how people learn—and how best to teach—hold provocative suggestions for learning in the arts and also for learning through the arts.
New technologies and communication systems have transformed virtually everything about how art is shared, sold, made accessible, and even how it is made. Young people are among the most adept at capitalizing on these technologies and systems, including generating new art and new forms of art. Their expertise must be recognized.
As cultural boundaries are crossed in the digital realm, patterns of migration and immigration are also transforming local cultures at an astonishing pace. Artists and arts educators are charged in these times with both the preservation of precious cultural and artistic traditions and the ever-?evolving transformation of all cultures through exchange and innovation.
Partnerships between schools and arts organizations have long been a part of the arts education landscape, but new kinds of alliances and collaborations are advancing the work of creating quality arts learning opportunities in schools and communities across major metropolitan areas, such as the comprehensive and systemic initiatives through Big Thought in Dallas and smaller, strategic associations of arts providers, like the efforts of the Boston Youth Arts Evaluation Project collaboration with local community-based arts programs to create coordinated yet flexible assessment tools.
Within many arts institutions, such as museums and performing arts organizations, a radical recalibration of the role of education in those settings is taking place. In other words, from the smallest to the largest arts institutions, learning is moving from the literal and proverbial basement to the very core of the mission, transforming, slowly but surely, the relationship between artistic and educational purposes.
Artists are reconsidering their identities, embracing their roles as citizens and teachers. Inspired by international models, like El Sistema, or new local programs, like the Progressive Arts Alliance in Cleveland, artists across all art forms are called to address social justice and human rights concerns. They are creating new models of what it means to be an artist—models that see no dichotomy between being an artist, an educator, and a citizen engaged in communities and society.
For most of the twentieth century in America the field of arts education has been overwhelmingly focused on the teaching of the arts in schools. But now, when it is abundantly clear that so much learning takes place outside of school and even well beyond the school-going years, arts educators can no longer hold on to such a narrow view of where and how people can access arts learning experiences.
As we speed through the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is time to reposition our view of what counts as arts education by taking a much wider view of all of the many places where young people encounter, engage with, study, practice, and make art.
It is time to embrace this broader view of the arts in the lives and learning experiences of young people and adults and to explore all of the ways in which we can rethink and reshape relationships and opportunities for aligning this field with long-standing efforts of artists and educators to humanize our schools, strengthen our communities, and create a healthier society.
Growing the Conversation
In 1991 Maxine Greene, who is afforded the last word in this volume, had the first words in the Harvard Educational Review
symposium on the arts as education. She wrote:
It is not uncommon for the arts to leave us somehow ill at ease, nor for them to prod us beyond acquiescence. They may, now and then, move us into spaces where we can create visions of other ways of being and ponder what it might signify to realize them. To say “we” in this fashion is to suggest the existence of a community of educators committed to emancipatory pedagogy, now in the domain of the arts. Such a community would have to include in its dialogue women and men of all classes, backgrounds, colors and religious faiths, each one free to speak from a distinctive perspective, each one reaching from that distinctive perspective toward the making of some common world. (p. 27)
Enter this special issue of the Harvard Educational Review
, a volume I hope will encourage dialogue and a sense of solidarity among the many players in this rich, vital, and ever-expanding field—youth workers, artists who teach, classroom teachers with a passion for the arts, community activists, neuroscientists, public health workers, academics, parents, and many more, but most critically, young people and adults who want to learn and grow in and through the arts.
This is a conversation that must be crafted, nurtured, and continued face-to-face, in print, and online. It is a conversation that must wrestle with the countless challenges of creating inventive, high-quality, and equitable arts learning opportunities for all. It must also be a conversation that continually questions the nature and purposes of learning in and through the arts. Throughout history, great societies and thriving communities have been characterized by the richness of their artistic cultures. May this dialogue embrace—and never forget—a vision of how learning in and through the arts can play a catalyzing role in the creation of a just and healthy society, the “common world” that Maxine Greene called for. Anything less would not be worthy of the human capacity for artistic experience and moral imagination.
Greene, M. (1991). Texts and margins. Harvard Educational Review
, 61(1), 27–39.
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