Art education for all | Gamma of higher education
What is Broadway’s most popular and highest-grossing pandemic-delayed show? A cover of Meredith Wilson from 1957 music man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. This old-school musical embodies in many ways what we mean by Americana: it offers a heartwarming and highly sentimental take on America’s past, stripped of its diversity and conflict.
And yet, alongside the musical’s inspiring portrayal of a cheeky, cynical, yet endearing con man, there’s another common thread worthy of attention: the people of River City yearn for something more than their banal, monotonous and colorless life. For art, music and culture.
In my opinion, the greatest weakness of college education today concerns arts education. Sure, our institutions usually offer a range of courses in music appreciation and art history or theater, but that’s not what arts education means to me.
Shouldn’t arts education be more participatory and performative, not only for the most gifted and talented, but for all students? If we are to nurture creative expression, cultivate a lifelong interest in the arts, foster the enjoyment of joy that comes from participation in the arts, and build a knowledgeable and discerning audience, we must address arts education in an innovative way.
The need could hardly be greater. The therapeutic functions of the arts should not be minimized. Participation in the arts provides ways to explore and express emotions, manage and relieve stress, overcome psychological and emotional challenges, foster self-awareness and mindfulness, and cultivate sensorimotor skills and perceptual, listening and hermeneutic skills.
Participation in the arts can also affirm identities and motivate and engage students who otherwise find their academic education overly abstract.
Just as war is too important to be left to generals, art education is too valuable to be reserved only for emerging artists, creative writers and musicians. Just as we have increasingly relegated youth sports to the most promising young athletes, we have increasingly reserved the ability to play, draw and write creatively for those with special talent.
Today, most students will unfortunately not attend a concert, a play, let alone an opera or a ballet. Indeed, few watch feature films of historical significance in an academic context. How can we hope to build an audience for the arts if we fail to expose the students of these formative years to the arts in all their richness?
A number of colleges and universities provide compelling examples of how new approaches to arts education can be scaled.
At Hunter College, part of the City University of New York System, Humanities 20100: Explorations in the Arts students visit museums and archives and attend musical, theater, dance, and opera performances, then participate to signature seminars led by competent and committed professors. mentors and guest artists, composers, critics, novelists and playwrights, in which they examine the historical contexts and the aesthetic, cultural and philosophical significance of the works they see and hear.
An outgrowth of an “Arts Across the Curriculum” planning grant from the Mellon Foundation, HUM 20100 has the dual purpose of infusing the humanities and the arts into College student life in a systematic and sustainable way and awakening the curiosity about aspects of the humanities and arts within a very diverse generation of career-oriented undergraduates.
Of course, since Hunter is located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a short bus or subway ride from the Academy of American Poets, Asia Society, Guggenheim Museum, Frick Collection, Lincoln Center , the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Neue Galerie, and the Public Theatre, it is relatively easy to integrate the arts into the curriculum.
But there are ways to replicate something like these experiences, if only virtually, by partnering with campus museums and taking advantage of on-campus performances.
The University of Houston has taken a very different approach to developing arts education. A team-based course on the creative process featured lectures and interviews with artists-in-residence on campus, which at the time included playwrights Edward Albee and Elizabeth Brown Guillory, composer Carlisle Floyd, poet Edward Hirsch, the sculptor Luis Jimenez, novelist Colson Whitehead and actress Lois Chiles, among others.
This course, organized and directed by Lois Parkinson Zamora, a leader in the comparative study of the arts and literature of the Americas, examined various theories of the creative process, including internal factors, such as life experiences, emotions and states of the artist. of mind, which shape the creation of artistic works, and external factors, including gender considerations and current societal circumstances. The course also addressed issues of craftsmanship, including concept formulation, artistic technique, and material or thematic exploration.
Here I might mention VIVA, the virtual guest artist association that connects campuses with artists who are largely women, or artists of color, or from LGBTQ+ backgrounds.
But what about expanding opportunities to actually participate in the arts? Too often, opportunities to attend art classes, dance classes, acting, performance and production classes, creative writing or scriptwriting workshops, or to take piano lessons and other music is reserved for the most privileged young people.
But multiplying the opportunities to participate in artistic lessons and performances is not beyond our capabilities. It’s more a question of priorities and will. The steps that institutions can take are obvious:
- Partner with local museums, theater and dance companies, and other arts organizations.
- Invite local artists and performers to host workshops and studio opportunities.
It’s no secret that arts education in K-12 schools has declined, and low-income Black and Hispanic children are disproportionately unlikely to participate in childhood arts education. In many cases, K-12 schools spend more money on sports than on the arts.
Yet we also know that students from low-income backgrounds who are highly involved in the arts are much less likely to drop out of high school, perform better on standardized tests, and are much more likely to earn a college degree.
The explanations for the distorted priorities are no secret: Funds have been diverted from the arts due to an increased focus on reading and math test scores.
The consequences of defunding arts education surround us. As a report by the RAND Corporation revealed, even before the pandemic, audiences for classical music, jazz, opera, musicals, theater and visual arts were shrinking as a proportion of the population. Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of adults who visited a museum or art gallery decreased by around 20%.
Without in any way trying to denigrate the ancient sailors who lived on the south coast of Canaan some 3,000 years ago, I fear that we are becoming a nation of Philistines in the artistic sense: a people who depreciate the arts, who favor kitsch over of demanding art forms and who fail, to a disturbing degree, to associate with the arts and the artists.
The solution seems obvious to me: let’s give our students more opportunities to be interested in works of art, to interact with artists and to make art.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.