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Why Ignore Arts Education In Our Reforms?

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It is difficult to imagine a human society without the arts. The arts define what we mean by civilization. They are part of the foundation and framework of our culture. As a universal language through which we can express our common aspirations and experiences, the arts are a channel to understanding and appreciating other cultures. As the language of civilization----past and present---they are a record of and a means of expressing our imagination and feeling. They link us to our own creative powers and to each other.

It seems fair to ask then, if the arts occupy such a central role in human life, shouldn't they have a central place in education? If we do not teach our children to look and understand what they see, haven't we failed to prepare them for contemporary life and provide them with a complete education? If a purpose of education is to ensure the continuity of our democratic system and its values from one generation to the next, then why aren't we teaching the things that bring us closest to the core of our cultural experience?

In 1988, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of a study on arts education that had been two years in the making, "Toward Civilization: A Report on Arts Education." The report defines four purposes of arts education: to give our young people a sense of civilization, to foster creativity, to teach effective communication, and to provide tools for the critical assessment of what one reads, sees, and hears. Its assessment of our present state was that "basic arts education does not exist in the United States today." The situation has been exacerbated by the "back to the basics" movement and the budgetary crisis confronting many school districts, causing many schools to cut back on what they consider to be frills, including the arts.

If the arts are so basic to becoming an educated person, why are they so ignored in our schools--and in our plans for school improvement?

First, we have tended to regard them as dealing with emotion rather than the mind, and as useful primarily as a release from the serious work of getting educated. This fails to recognize that creation of images calls for inventive problem solving capacities, analytic and synthetic forms of reasoning, and the exercise of judgment.

A second reason the arts are ignored is that they are not formally assessed and, as a consequence, do not promote the student's academic upward mobility. If the arts carry little weight in college-admissions decisions, they will be of little importance to schools, students, or parents.

A third reason stems from the view held by many art educators that the teaching of art should focus almost exclusively on developing the student's creative ability. As such, many have resisted including any structure or content for fear it would stifle creativity. The result is programs lacking substance and perceived as not worthy of inclusion in the curriculum.

But skillfully taught and integrated into the general education curriculum, the arts can help achieve many of the alms of education reform. A growing body of evidence from the classroom indicates that strengths gained in the study of art carry over into other subject areas. There are reports that students' vocabulary and writing skills improve after having been in a discipline-based art program. Some teachers attribute higher test scores in science, mathematics, reading, and so on to the integration of the arts into the teaching of these subjects. A report by the University of California at Los Angeles's Study of Evaluation on the educational impact of the Los Angeles Music Center's Artist in Residence and Teacher (ART) Partnerships found improvement and growth in all areas of the study, including students' cognitive skills, thinking skills, self-expression, attitude development, and social skills.

Ten years ago, the J. Paul Getty Trust surveyed the state of arts education in America's public schools. The picture was bleak. Few high-school graduates had ever been exposed to the arts or art training in their 12 years of schooling. In general, the public regarded art as a fringe activity with little or no importance to a child's education.

Nevertheless, we found through discussions with art experts and educators that there were exciting new ideas and lines of research developing, some related to a curriculum for elementary art integrating several art disciplines. These ideas, fortified by research, were beginning to jell into a comprehensive strategy we called discipline-based art education, an approach that embraced content from four art disciplines: production, art history, art criticism, and esthetics.

In 1982, the trust, through the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, committed itself to helping make such an approach to visual-art education a reality. We are engaged in a long-term effort to serve as a catalyst in furthering the theory and practice of art education in America.

Our experience has confirmed the potential of discipline based art-education programs to develop intellectual skills and to cultivate creative self-expression. We now know, for example, that art instruction that involves students in analyzing works of art requires functioning at the highest cognitive levels of mental activity.

Learning how to critique and judge art sharpens critical faculties by obliging the student to think independently, creatively, and to make reasoned judgments based on his or her own knowledge and trained observations. Students asked to consider art from the standpoints of the artist, the art historian, the critic, and the esthetician soon become more perceptive about visual images and more open to different ways of thinking about the same image.

These critical-thinking skills are vital for young people entering the world of the 21st century. New work arrangements will require more independent judgments. The likelihood of multiple careers during one's lifetime will demand flexibility and imagination. To live and work in an increasingly multicultural society, young people will need a tolerance and appreciation of other peoples and customs. Students of the next century will need to be visually literate, versed in the language of the arts, in order to cope and compete in a society that communicates more and more through visual images and in which computer-based technology requires the interpretation of ever more complex and fastpaced systems of symbols. Even today, exciting new interactive multimedia programs are beginning to enhance the way children learn, and before long may alter the nature of the traditional classroom.

The arts and humanities are essential to a complete education, and any society that deprives its students of these studies accepts mediocrity. The present movement toward educational reform offers us a ripe opportunity to further the cause of the arts and humanities in the public schools. It is daunting to think that wide-ranging change can only come about through the decisions of 16,000 individual, autonomous local school boards. But school beards have the advantage of being the closest of all American political institutions to the grassroots, and Americans have indicated that they are hungry for reform and receptive to innovation.

In one Minnesota school district, a recent public-attitude survey revealed that the discipline-based art-education program had outpolled the athletic program in popularity. In Aiken, S.C., a grammar school which has integrated the arts into the general curriculum consistently posts high marks on standardized tests, continues to win state and national awards, and last year was named a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Education Department. Most significantly, the school's performance helped convince the state legislature to allocate more money for arts education.

President Bush's America 2000 program for the improvement of the nation's schools has provided a timely opportunity to advance the cause of the arts and humanities in American education. Unfortunately, the President's statement of national goals for education mentions the improvement of English, math, science, history, and geography education as objectives but does not include the arts and humanities.

I can only hope this oversight can be corrected, because if the arts and humanities are not important enough to be included in our national goals, other national and state educational reformers may not find them important enough to include, either. However, I view the President's proposal as an open door. We need only the will and determination to walk through it. I believe that our case for giving the arts and humanities a more central role in education is a persuasive one. And I believe it is right.

We can have any kind of schools we want--if we make our minds up to do it. We have the freedom to be outspoken advocates for including the arts and the humanities in the curriculum. We can form alliances with like-minded individuals and groups. We can seek out successful programs and hold them up as examples. And when we finally succeed in raising the arts and humanities to their rightful, and necessary, place in education, we will have done a great service not only to countless generations of students to come but to the cause of democracy itself.


Harold M. Williams is president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. This essay is adapted from his remarks last fall to the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

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