Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wanted - Arts Activists

In a post last week, I made a statement that I want to take some time to explain.  In it, I said that "This is not a blog for arts advocates....This weblog is a place for arts activists" .  I didn't explain that very well,
andt don't want those statements to be misunderstood.  I very much do want this blog to be a place for arts advocates to come, and find information, inspiration, and motivation to defend the arts in whatever circumstances that they find themselves.  As a casualty of the 'Arts Wars' however, I no longer believe that advocacy is sufficient.  I believe that advocates have to become activists, or there will be no arts programs left to defend, - as happened with my former program.

For years among professional arts educators, I found myself sort of straddling the line between two very different debates and widely held viewpoints on the reasons to include 'Arts Education' in schools.  One side of the debate insisted that we (professional arts educators) should promote the arts in schools because of  their 'instrumental' value in improving students academic performance, given the high-stakes testing arena in which we all found ourselves.  The other, often very passionately made argument was that we should not waste our time or energy promoting these 'instrumental' effects - no matter how real they may be - but we should rather focus on the intrinsic value of the arts and on the importance of teaching the arts for their own value, personal, social, and cultural.  I found myself seeing value in both sides of that debate, but in my own professional practice, I leaned toward the 'instrumental' side of the debate, thinking that this would be more persuasive in influencing stakeholders in the educational system who were not convinced of the value of the arts in schools.  By stakeholders, I mean parents, school board members, teachers and school officials, and legislators.

There were often very colorful exchanges in this debate.  "Who among you has ever taken a 'Math Appreciation Course" a lecturer at a summer seminar once exclaimed.  His point of course was that the only way to appreciate math, was to learn it, which is why schools teach it.  Since that is the case then, having 7th or 8th grade  'music appreciation' classes, or 'art appreciation' classes, without ever having provided pre-requisite training in the arts in the lower grades, is simply an admission of failure.   I have never seen a 3 or 4 year old that didn't 'appreciate' art or music or drama or dance.  In fact of course, more than appreciate them, they love to sing, draw, dance, and play, and they probably can't imagine life any other way.

Then they go to school.   

Fast forward to the 7th or 8th grade, (or high school) and school systems have so deprived these same children of the arts that were once basic to each of them, that 'appreciation' classes are taught as way of trying to compensate for the deficit.*  (Now of course, even those classes have been eliminated).  The 'intrinsic value' argument continued that the arts provided an invaluable and alternative means of expressing oneself and ones culture, and that everyone needed the opportunity to experience, explore, and express their creativity through the language of the arts.  Painting or drawing is a way of  expressing oneself visually, and 'thinking out loud' in color.  Music is a 'language of the heart', and a way of aurally conveying ones' inmost feelings.  Drama allows participants and viewers alike to vicariously experience the lives, emotions,  and actions of others.  Dance is a physical and non-verbally expression all of these elements manifested through the beauty of the human body in motion.

On the other hand, the 'instrumental' argument insisted that because of the growing body of evidence in scientific circles as to the causal AND the correlational relationship between the arts and academic achievement, the importance of the arts in school should be emphasized for that reason.  A multitude of researchers were giving us remarkable evidence from neurology, psychology, and educational circles regarding this relationship, and surely if people looked at the evidence, went the argument, they couldn't possibly go on believing what they had always believed.    Unfortunately Ralph Waldo Emerson was a keen observer of human nature when he  wrote that 'People only see what they want to see".

That being the case, I am not suggesting that anyone interested in the value of the arts should not be well-versed in the facts and be able to advocate for the arts whenever they need to be defended.  Quite the contrary, - I believe that anyone seriously involved in the arts today has the responsibility of informing themselves of what the data really does say about the arts and education, and the development of the brain, and of self-regulation skills, and much more.  The point of my statement however, is that it is no longer enough to stop there. Defending the arts by refuting false arguments may win a point or two, but it will never win the minds of those with misplaced academic or budget priorities that are based on bias, ignorance, or myopia. There needs to be an offensive strategy somewhere in the mix.   The 'instrumental' argument would say that since most of the couple of dozen or so countries in the world that have better math and science scores than the United States, also have vibrant arts programs,  maybe there's something there to be learned there - not ignored.    Maybe instead of  depriving our children by cutting arts programs from schools,  perhaps using the arts in creative ways - like in those other countries - are what we need  to do to enhance learning, spark creativity,  develop self-regulatory skills and increase math and science scores as so much of the research shows is the case.  Those who take the 'intrinsic value' position might say that whether or not the arts increase academic performance or not isn't the question. Since People only see what they want to see,  these people will never be convinced by facts.  (Wasn't it Mark Twain that said "don't confuse me with facts' ?)  We should be teaching the arts for arts sake, because the arts are of great value in and of themselves.  We cannot allow ourselves to deprive our children or our culture of basic human forms of expression.

I guess that what I'm saying is that now I am seeing the 'instrumental position' as a defensive posturing, and the 'intrinsic value' position is more like an offense.  If we are to succeed in providing and promoting the power of the arts in education, don't we need both?  Let me give you some references so that you can explore the debate more fully and decide for yourselves.  One very good reference for arts activists to find a wealth of information on is the Art channel of the Educational Cyber-Playground   Interestingly enough, their current focus topic is "The Rational for Arts Education: Arts for Arts Sake Vs. the Instrumental Arguments used for Arts Advocacy"  How is that for timely.  

More insights into the debate can be heard from two very outspoken and knowledgable individuals on this topic: Ellen Winner, and Lois Hetland, two researchers for the Harvard Educational Research group, 'Project Zero'  , which is also a very good resource for arts activists.   Here is an article from the Boston Globe, and one from the New York Times capsulizing their thought.

If you want a fascinating and informative discussion, try Daniel Levitins book - This is your brain on music, or watch excerpts from his several interviews available through McGill University.  

The Power of Music to Affect the Brain is another important work that was reviewed on NPR a couple of months ago.

 Why Arts Education Must be saved. is another resource, from the Edutopia people. 

More links for 'Arts Activists' can be found on the sidebar, and at Joyfulnote Too .  

Til next time
Ron Zell

(c) 2011 by Eduarts4us. All rights reserved.

*I don't mean that those classes are easy for the poor arts teacher who have to try to teach under these circumstances.  Many of them do an exquisite job.  What I do mean, is that  'arts appreciation' classes can never substitute for articulated, sequential arts instruction.

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