In the recent issue of Education Next, I have a reminiscence of months spent at the National Endowment for the Arts working on arts education policy matters. It lays out a basic point about how arts offerings are to survive in a time of tightened budgets, STEM shortages, and NCLB focus on math, reading, and science.
Many advocates believe that the best way to maintain music, theater, visual arts, and dance in the school day is to align the arts with social benefits. When students take arts courses, they argue, they undergo behavioral changes that improve their prospects and make for a better society. The arts teach tolerance, they say, sensitivity to others and ambitions for the Good. They also reach those youngsters on the edge of disaster, the tough or depressed or victimized or delinquent ones who find high-school classes boring or hostile or restrictive. As NEA chairman Rocco Landesman put it in the Wall Street Journal a while back, “We’re going to try to move forward all the kids who were left behind by ‘No Child Left Behind’—the kids who have talent or a passion or an idiosyncratic perspective. Those kids are important too and they should have a place in society. It’s very often the arts that catches them.”
As I paraphrased it in the essay, “the purpose is salvation. Some students don’t fit the NCLB regime and other subjects don’t inspire them. Talented but offbeat, they sulk through algebra, act up in the cafeteria, and drop out of school. The arts ‘catch’ them and pull them back, turning a sinking ego on the margins into a creative citizen with ‘a place in society.'”
This is, I believe, a mistake. It ties arts learning too much to social benefits and downplays the arts as an academic subject. It doesn’t insist upon the arts as a discipline, but rather sentimentalizes the arts as a salvation. (See the rendition of the hood “Carlos” in the event described in the essay.) It doesn’t make other teachers in math, science, English, and social studies respect the arts as an integral part of liberal education. It makes them regard the arts as a vacation from standards and rigor.
The arts classes I visited and observed while at the agency weren’t like that at all. They were darn rigorous and exacting. I recall sitting in on one band practice in Virginia that involved one exhausting repetition after another, the leader picking and pulling the renditions apart to identify the errors and correct them for what seemed like two intense hours. (As with varsity sports teams, the poor performance of any one musician or dancer or actor stands out immediately.)
If we wish to bolster the arts, let’s emphasize the challenging, difficult course of mastery, the need to practice practice practice, and the crucial element of artistic tradition in the discipline. If social benefits follow, that’s great, but social impact doesn’t work as a curricular argument.