Does your school offer classes in music, drama, dance or the visual arts? What experiences have you had with arts classes yourself, whether in or outside of school? How important do you think arts education is for students in general? Why?
Chloe Veltman writes about youth choirs, which are flourishing in San Francisco despite the cuts in school music education, in “In the ‘Glee’ Era, Youth Choruses Pop Up All Over” :
…young people’s choirs are flourishing in the Bay Area. Thanks to the commitment of talented choral directors — and the popularity of TV shows like “Glee” — youth choirs in the region are in a golden era.
There are about 40 independent children’s vocal ensembles in the region, and many are earning wide recognition for the complexity and variety of their output and the creativity of their collaborations.
…The reasons for the growth can be explained in part by the decline of music education in public schools. Plus there’s the “Glee” factor. According to a recent poll by the National Association for Music Education, nearly half of the music teachers surveyed reported that “Glee” had increased interest in their offerings.
The most acclaimed Bay Area youth choruses, whose after-school programs range from around $600 to $1,850 a year in student fees depending on the organization (scholarships are available), are striving to mitigate the budget cuts in music education and serve the surge in interest in singing prompted by pop culture.
Students: Tell us about your experience with courses in music, visual arts, drama or dance. How do you think exposure to the arts has affected you? How important do you think arts education is for students in general? Why?
Teachers: Here are 10 ways to teach with this feature.
Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.
DBAE is still, formally, the basis for arts in the English national curriculum. But the instrumentalisation of education in the UK, making it more accountable to the needs of the economy and contemporary socio-political agendas, has taken its toll on arts education. The above-mentioned OECD report exemplifies this tendency: it frames arts education in terms of ‘skills critical for innovation: critical and creative thinking, motivation, self-confidence, and ability to communicate and co-operate effectively’.
Although we apparently live in a knowledge-based society, knowledge in the curriculum - particularly the arts curriculum - has been displaced by an emphasis on creativity. At the same time, the arts have been elided with creativity as a catch-all concept, a means to a successful and happy life. The arts now provide us with problem-solving skills, innovative mindsets, communicative attitudes and inspiration. Conceived thus, the arts have become the butt of banalities about everyday life, cohesive communities, a good society and a buoyant economy.
Everyday creativity, however, is very different to artistic creativity. The conflation of the two in discussions about democratising the arts and promoting arts education has led to a real devaluing of the arts, artistic knowledge and skill. Creativity arises from a complex synthesis of abstract knowledge, concrete knowhow of specific skills and processes, and inner drive; to downplay the importance of knowledge and knowhow in the creative process can only diminish it.
The old Masters?
So perhaps it is worth thinking more deeply about arts education and why it is a necessary part of a good education. W H Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Artes’ comes to mind:
‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…’
I studied this poem at school and it has always remained in my ear as a kind of rueful wisdom. The arts are part of the world we live in. Shakespeare’s language is part of our idiom, offering expression for every feeling and emotion, from despair to love. Great buildings make us wonder at human ingenuity and ambition. Paintings from Rembrandt’s self portraits to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ have become popular and recognisable expressions of complex emotions, from the experience of aging to the horrors of war to the pleasure we take in the natural world. Novelists from Austen to Tolstoy to Orwell are frequently drawn on as sources of insights about the individual in changing societies.
Great works of art become a common language through which we perceive and deal with our world. You don’t need to have read Auden’s poems or seen Shakespeare’s plays, much less studied them, to be part of the world in which they resonate. Insights about our existence - the human condition - formulated by artists, enter our lives through many different channels and often shape the processes through which we find meaning in our lives.
However, at the very least, a good education provides young people with an appreciation of the importance of the arts: a sense of why they matter, where they come from, how they fit together, why they can be sources of such greater pleasure and insight, and what additional insights they can yield if you do study them. As spiked regular Frank Furedi has pointed out in his book, Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating, the teacher’s role is to pass on the wisdom of generations, ‘to teach children about the world as it is’. He writes: ‘It is impossible to engage with the future unless people draw on the insights and knowledge gained through centuries of human experience. Individuals gain an understanding of themselves through familiarity with the unfolding of the human world.’
Similarly, Hannah Arendt described education as an essentially conservative process. It gives children a foundational knowledge of what the world is like so they can find their feet in it. Education should not be about instructing children in the art of living. Ideally, formal education should be a period of separation from the pressures and demands of daily life. The content of education should be (as Matthew Arnold expressed it nearly 200 years ago) the best that has been thought and said in the world - because otherwise it degenerates into moral emotional rhetoric, an attempt to manipulate children who do not have the maturity to resist.
Viewing education as a useful social-engineering mechanism, to cope with contemporary social problems such as unemployment, social disaffection and fragmented communities, has undermined its substantive and historic role. For anyone keen to retrieve education as a process of teaching children, conveying a love of learning, rather than trying to manipulate them, a good arts education is a perfect place to start.
The importance of arts education in the school curriculum is that it can begin to introduce students to another way of understanding themselves and the world, and different ways of expressing thoughts, experiences and feelings that are not easily expressed in everyday symbols and signs. A good arts education is built on and reflects recognition of the specific and unique way that the arts shape our thinking and our lives.
As a distinct area of human activity and development, the arts provide forms of symbolic representation that are close to language, but not identical with it. The complex and contradictory character of some experiences, and our responses to them, are simply beyond the reach of everyday language. As products of intellectual activity, reflecting the many different trajectories our search for meaning can take, the arts make internal experiences external.
The richness of art lies in its indefinite character, which allows inexhaustible possibilities of expression and interpretation. The arts do not deal with question of ‘what is it for?’ or ‘why does it exist?’. Rather they externalise our inner lives in sensuous form. As the philosopher Susanne Langer suggested: ‘Art is the objectification of feeling, and in developing our intuition, teaching eye and ear to perceive expressive form, it makes form expressive for us wherever we confront it, in actuality as well as in art.’
Arts and the public
Perhaps the greatest failure of contemporary arts education is its inability to equip young people with knowledge, understanding and knowhow to enable them to engage fully in critical public debate about the arts. Democratisation of the arts – making them accessible to everyone, engendering real public engagement – requires an arts education that properly introduces young people to a range of art forms (and gives them a sense that there are others to explore).
Most students who study the arts will not become artists; those who do will specialise in one artform. So the purpose of a good arts education must primarily be to develop the ability to judge, ideally within a range of forms. Art, once it leaves the studio or the rehearsal room, no longer belongs to the artist and becomes subject to the judgement of others. If we really want to democratise the arts, we need to give young people enough knowledge to enter into an intelligent debate about what is good and what is not.
Ultimately the justification for arts education lies in promoting the love of learning, the desire to plumb the inexhaustible depths of artistic creation, and hence a world in which the arts can thrive. I can’t put it better than Virginia Woolf, whose concept of the ‘common reader’ can be stretched to the ‘common arts lover’:
‘If… to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print…. If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? And if by our means books were to become stronger, richer, and more varied, that would be an end worth reaching.’
Wendy Earle is impacts and knowledge exchange manager, Birkbeck, University of London and the convenor of Institute of Ideas Arts and Society Forum.
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