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The Strategic Good Sense of Arts Education

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Arts education in the United States is in critical condition, and we need to find a cure. On a national level, most poignantly in New York, colleges are beginning to see a shortage of qualified applicants from high schools, and the problem is growing.

Our colleges must have a continuing source of well qualified students who have already received their basic art training in elementary and high school. We need these students so that we, in turn, can provide a pool of highly skilled artists and designers to work in advertising, apparel, interior design, graphic design, and all the other art- and design-related industries that require a constant infusion of new talent to survive.

The neglect of arts education in our nation is deeply disturbing. It's uncivilized, certainly. But that's only part of the problem. Educationally and economically, it's unsound, shortsighted, and irresponsible. And in New York City--always a mecca for artists, and a world center for art and design professions of every kind--it's shocking.

The dismal state of arts education was front-page news in The New York Times not long ago. It told us, in no uncertain terms, that the arts just aren't a priority in our schools. In New York City, two-thirds of public elementary schools have no art teachers, and only two of the city's 32 school districts have an art and music teacher in every school. This means it is impossible to meet state requirements that students take at least one arts course before they graduate.

A report by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund School Partners Project also shows a pretty bleak picture, noting that the majority of New York City elementary students go the entire school year without instruction in art or music, dance, or drama.

In many school districts across the country, there is little understanding of how the arts can serve the broader goals of education, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. And because schools are ranked according to reading scores, many of them prefer to concentrate on the kinds of skills that can be measured by standardized tests.

In other words, science and math are hot; art is not.

Young people are being shortchanged, and not just because many potential art and design students, denied a proper art background in their early years, are never going to qualify for colleges which focus on these fields. The real tragedy is that we're failing to take advantage of what art can do for children--for their cognitive development, their social skills, their self esteem, their interest in learning, not to mention their understanding of history, psychology, political science--just about any subject in the curriculum.

Through art, we can reach those who can't be reached in other ways. Many children don't do well in the traditional classroom, where verbal learning is the key to success. Without the opportunity to learn in a visual or hands-on style, these kids are often branded failures throughout their school careers. They may never discover that they have valuable talents they can take pride in. Arts education can change all that, and that's pretty powerful.

Look at the St. Augustine School of the Arts. In 1985, the school, located in one of the poorest sections of the Bronx, was about to close due to a lack of students. Administrators then created an arts program which resulted in a doubling of enrollment and a dramatic increase in math and reading scores.

As those at St. Augustine know, art can be used to teach just about anything, and can improve a student's overall abilities in school. It helps us develop the very skills and abilities teachers welcome in their classrooms and employers clamor for in the workplace. And on top of all that, it can offer lucrative career opportunities.

Perhaps we should also learn from the Italians, who set about to capture a major portion of the fashion industry, and have succeeded partly by focusing on art education in the early years of school as preparation for those who want to become designers. Industries in Milan also made a major investment in the effort.

In contrast, apparel is a $14 billion industry in New York, and though the economy needs serious help, we have not made a long-term commitment to the industry's revitalization. While the market is ripe for fresh, young designers, the pool of new talent is distressingly thin. This is a void just waiting to be filled, and it's not the only wasted opportunity out there. It's hard to believe there aren't creative kids who are missing these kinds of opportunities because we're failing to recognize and nurture their talent.

In Miami, arts teachers have formed a strong lobby, winning the support of the school board, business leaders, and parents. As a result, the Dade County, Fla., board of education now defines the arts as a basic skill, with classes consistently available to all children. Miami students now sweep national arts competitions.

Recently, I invited my colleagues from four other leading colleges in the Northeast to address the issue of arts education on the elementary and high school levels. Presidents from Cooper Union, Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the School of Visual Arts have been meeting with me on this issue to discuss solutions.

Among the suggestions has been organized political action leaning heavily on industry support. Those who would most benefit from an increase in arts education, in addition to youths, are the leaders of industries that rely on a design related workforce, and they should be out pushing for more funding in the schools.

We should also reach out to the lower grades in order that high school students who want to study art and design will have a solid elementary and middle school background in those areas.

All of the local colleges involved in our effort work with high school educators to provide supplementary and complementary activities for students after school, and during weekends and the summer months. I think we can do more in the area of what the president of Pratt Institute, Warren Ilch, calls the "Urban Arts Peace Corps,'' and also can encourage others to do the same.

For instance, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, we annually enroll a number of "at risk'' high school students in a program which combines college-prep courses, exposure to various art and design disciplines, and mentorships. The High School Partnership program, which helps the young people get through high school and into college, is worth expansion in Manhattan and duplication elsewhere.

There should be fewer mandates and more flexibility for high schools. Creative administrators, principals, and faculty should be given the freedom to come up with their own solutions to arts-education issues on a school-by-school, classroom-by-classroom basis.

At a recent forum at my school presented by our group of New York City college presidents, I heard a number of teachers and administrators discuss the issues of cutbacks in art education. No one was more eloquent than Joan Davidson, director of the Wadleigh Arts High School, an alternative school in Harlem, who gave a passionate defense of the value of the arts. "We talk about multiculturalism, but how do we know each other but by the way we express ourselves through the arts, and that's being cut,'' she said. "So we are making a city where the content of the arts is the graffiti.''

I agree with Ms. Davidson. And further, in addition to depriving ourselves of the joy of discovering the results of artistic expression by our young people, we are also missing an opportunity to put that talent to good use in strengthening an economy that can use all the help it can get.

Allan Hershfield is the president of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

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