Commentary

Why Ignore the Forms of Art?

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The voices calling for a reform of teacher education are multiple and diverse. Perhaps the most far-ranging and persuasive is the report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future." (See Education Week, Sept. 18, 1996.) But the teachers' unions, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and a number of schools of education are making their own contributions. Certainly, critics of the schools like E.D. Hirsch Jr., the head of the Core Knowledge Foundation and author of The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them, put much of the onus for what is wrong upon teacher education and are articulating their own proposals for reform and change.

It is difficult, nearly impossible, to take issue with people who speak so eloquently about quality, excellence, equity, collaboration, care, and professional development. There can be no disagreement on the need to educate all of America's children for a changing world and for the technological revolution; nor can there be disagreement on the need for teachers with the knowledge and skills required to enable all children to learn. "We must reclaim the soul of America," write the authors of the national commission's report. "And to do so, we need an education system that helps people to forge shared values, to understand and respect other perspectives, to learn and work at high levels of competence, to take risks and persevere against the odds, to work comfortably with people from diverse backgrounds, and to continue to learn throughout life."

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Reading that, noting the "human core" that presumably must be attended to, I am startled by the ignoring of the arts and the traditions and conversations out of which they emerge. I do not mean only exploration of various media for the sake of self-expression, important as this may be. I mean the great range of artworks that mark the high points of cultures developing over the centuries. I mean what Clifford Geertz, in his book Local Culture, calls "art as a cultural system," the ways in which the arts exemplify the sense of being-in-the-world. To study an art form, writes Mr. Geertz, is to study a sensibility and to realize "that such a sensibility is essentially a collective formation, and that the foundations of such a formation are as wide as social existence and as deep."

Teachers provided access to "high-quality professional development" ought not to be deprived of opportunities to engage with sensibilities in Clifford Geertz's sense.

But there is another aspect of the study of art forms that not only awakens teachers to all sorts of new perspectives upon the lived world, past and present, but also provides occasions for authentic active learning of the kind that is paradigmatic for the learning excellent teachers are supposed to make possible for the young. To enter, for example, a Cezanne landscape, to learn to "read" that landscape requires a mode of reflectiveness and imaginative play seldom experienced outside the domains of the art. Cezanne, like Herman Melville and Toni Morrison, like Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp, like Arthur Miller and Terrence McNally, created out of his own substance and craft and experience works that can only be brought alive for people willing to lend them their lives, to infuse them with their own awareness and their own imaginative energy.

Personal agency, passion, imagination, and a making of meaning: All of these must be part of full engagement with the arts; and it is difficult to accept a call for excellent teaching and "teaching for America's future" that pays no heed to the awakenings the arts make possible, the breaking with what Virginia Woolf called the "cotton wool of daily life." To teach for the future requires a break from the routine and the ordinary, from the merely repetitive. And the arts, of all forms, may awaken teachers-to-be from the "anesthetic" and provide opportunities for them to choose themselves through the projects of their teaching, through their being in the world.

I choose to end with a few lines written by John Dewey in his book The Public and Its Problems. The conscious life of opinion and judgment, he said, "often proceeds on a superficial and trivial plane. But their lives reach a deeper level. The function of art has always been to break through the crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness....Artists have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception, and appreciation."

My argument is not so much with reformers' emphasis on technology and the economy. It is not with the instances of teaching presented. It is certainly not with the moral values noted here and there, nor with the commitment to democracy. It is with the all-too-familiar dismissal of the arts, as if they are frills, as if they do not matter, as if they were not central to our understanding of the culture and of ourselves.

Vol. 16, Issue 21, Page 33

Published in Print: February 19, 1997, as Why Ignore the Forms of Art?
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