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Why we don’t do art in school (and why we should)

Why we don’t do art in school (and why we should)

This post by Susan Harris MacKay first appeared on the Living in Dialogue blog.
In these times, when the demolition of a place as historic as Sesame Street can be thwarted by editing for shorter attention spans and conversion to pay-per-view, it can be difficult to remember what all the fuss was about during the height of the Culture Wars. In these times, it’s easy to assume that the growing absence of the arts and play in schools is one of time pressures and competing priorities and disagreements about how children learn, and unrelated to a struggle for cultural control. Arts programs are being stripped from schools, especially schools serving our most vulnerable neighborhoods, because those schools are choosing, in response to a variety of policy decisions, to spend more time on subjects more likely to raise scores on standardized tests. Because we’ve got to concern ourselves with a Common Core, right? Surely it is in everyone’s best interest to focus on that?

DSC04436Regardless of the answer to those questions, what must be clear is that we are in the midst of a vicious fight to control the story that frames the world we live in as American citizens. As any policy maker or political candidate knows, who controls the culture controls the story. There is no better way – really, no other way — to control culture, than to control access to the arts.

In their Culture of Creativity report, the LEGO Foundation synthesizes the work of 18 essayists from around the world, commissioned to write about creativity informed by the perspective of their own culture. In summary, they write, “Culture is … a system through which people build meanings, and develop community, through the dimen­sions of having, doing, being and knowing. These are driv­en by playing, sharing, making and thinking — the active processes through which people learn and form meanings together.” What is eliminated from our classrooms when we eliminate the arts is playing, sharing, making and thinking. What is alienated from our classrooms is the opportunity to practice playing, sharing, making and thinking – without which it becomes impossible (or at least very difficult) to make meaning of our experience with the world. Without practice in the arts, we have less ability to reflect on our experience, to ask good questions, to express our perspective, to act on our feelings, to develop a community that might resist the status quo. If you can control the culture, you can control the story. And as long as your version is right, then alternatives can be, simply, wrong.

Restricting access to the arts allows those who wish to control the story to ensure that they are right and others are wrong. This rightness empowers them to require obedience and sanctions a variety of punishments for defiance – from expulsion in preschool to retention in second grade to defunding schools who don’t pass tests to execution in the street in broad daylight. Fear of wrongness keeps people focused on being right instead of asking what’s right. Fear decreases collaboration, listening, and ultimately, snuffs out empathy. Fearful people will fall in line behind a dictator.

Restricting access to the arts enforces silence by criminalizing creative disobedience. Increasingly, restricted access to the arts has grown an adult cohort that tolerates poisoned drinking water when a governor is responsible but calls other such violence, even when there are far fewer victims, an act of terror if ISIS is involved. Restricting the practice of playing, making, sharing, and thinking during the time when our youngest citizens’ brains are growing has created a society of adults that cannot tolerate ambiguity, cannot think critically, are fearful, and are drawn to radical political rhetoric.

So, these days, I wonder if the problem of the arts in schools is because of the relationship between the arts and learning. Since the Reagan administration created policies that led to large decreases in funding to the National Endowment for the Arts as late as 1997, the year in which the civil-rights-inspired Expansion Arts Program was discontinued, the result has been that fewer artists are confronting issues that challenge the status quo. Fewer people are playing, sharing, making and thinking. Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theater writes, “Most problematically, without federal support national conversations about culture policy began to evaporate, and in the void nonprofits hunkered down to fight for their own.” In our public schools and in our non-profit organizations, fewer people are playing, sharing, making and thinking. And that means that fewer people are contributing to the development of what we experience as American culture. Schools without art mean that fewer children discover the power of their own potential for expression. And that means that over time fewer voices are contributing because fewer people believe that they have something to contribute. Fewer people believe they have a right or a reason to contribute. And as creative capacity is diminished, commercialism eagerly fills the void.

From Disney to McDonald’s to Sponge Bob to Big Bird, commercial culture has increasingly replaced or been confused with creativity. And while their children are delighted, adults are distracted from the problem at hand. Commercial culture has led adults, for example, to focus on how the arts can be leveraged for other tasks—like how music improves math — rather than on the cultural impact of cutting the arts from our environments for learning. In his article Art and Democracy, Cocke writes, “the impact of U.S. commercial culture in this moment of globalization has become overwhelming. Imagine how the U.S. looks to hundreds of millions of people around the world whose only sources of information about us are commercial or propaganda television, Hollywood movies, and pop music. Equally troubling, at home this commercial preference has corrupted our own not-for-profit sectors’ core values.” It has been more than a decade since this article was published, and we can see the the impact. Commercial culture has functioned as a sleight of hand, obscuring the distinction between creator and consumer, seducing us into an acceptance of conformity and loss of identity, and handing us the politics of the day.

P1010584One part of the NEA’s original purpose statement reads, “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens and must therefore foster and support a form of education designed to make men masters of their technology and not its unthinking servant.” As funding for the arts has been cut, these ideas have been diluted. As economic disparities have grown, creative disparities have grown alongside them. When the children of parents who can pay $38,000 a year for preschool are told by school founder Chris Wink, “This much is certain: it will be impossible to convince [our] children that their aspirations are unattainable. …There will be no way of fooling them into believing that the stirrings in their hearts are unimportant.” And David Coleman, the architect of Common Core, is telling the children down the street at the neighborhood public school that “people don’t really give a **** about what you feel or what you think”, it’s long past time to consider the implications of such a serious threat to our democracy. The question remains: what are we willing to do about it? How will we find our way?

The authors of the LEGO Foundation’s Culture of Creativity report write, “cultures are made by humans, but culture also significantly shapes young children, because the human race is amazingly adaptive, especially in the critical young years.” It is precisely because the young human is so amazingly adaptive that finding ways to infuse the arts into the daily life of the classroom may be the greatest subversive tool we have to combat the commercialized, controlled, and combative culture that will otherwise shape our children. Playing, making, sharing, and thinking are the birthright of our species and natural learning strategies that all children bring with them to school. Children arrive at school with a creative mindset. What experiences and environments can adults design to sustain and extend it?

I don’t consider myself to be an artist, or an art teacher. Yet, when I am teaching in the classroom, it is my habit to ask myself, “Where are the arts?” I find that when I habitually ask that question as I’m planning, the arts become habitual. The availability of tools of the arts, as well as an invitation to use them, secures my role as “professional marveller” as Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the municipal preprimary schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, fondly described the work of the teacher. Like the day several weeks ago, when 8 year-old Ella wondered aloud during a whole group dialogue in response to a book I’d read to them, “I know that metacognition means thinking about your thinking. But what’s the word that means thinking about your feelings?” The excited hush that typically follows such a beautiful question ran through the group. What is that word? And how might those words be related? How are thinking and feeling related? Which comes first? Can you have one without the other?

So I invited the children to PLAY with the idea. Using collections of loose part materials for collage or building, I invited them to MAKE a theory and to SHARE it with a partner. And it wasn’t too long before 8 year-old KD ran excitedly to me and said she’d been just fiddling around with a shiny piece of tinsel in the light when she made a discovery. She explained, “It all started out with a shiny piece. Its shadow reflected on the table. Like in Buddy and Earl, [Buddy] thought about his feelings and he felt his feelings of being friends. You think about your thinking and you feel and you feel and you think – it goes back and forth like the reflection in a mirror. It’s reflection!”

I don’t need to be an artist to offer children use of the materials of the arts as tools for thinking. And that’s not to diminish the value of artists in the schools or children’s encounters with artists who can teach and apprentice them, offering inspiration and skill and technique that they have a right to just as much as they have the right to multiplication tables or internet research. It’s just to say that I can choose to keep the door open. And when I do, they retain access to their creative birthright. They practice influencing the culture of their classroom community with their ideas and feelings and questions and contributions.  They find out they can.


More of the NEA’s purpose statement reads, “The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion and . . . it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” We are now reaping the results of a dedication and devotion to commercialism and consumerism. If we are to evolve beyond a culture that confuses adolescent posturing with political debate, we’ll need to offer our youngest citizens a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination and inquiry. We’ll need to grow a new kind of citizenry. And that means we’ll need to invest in the material conditions that will facilitate the release of every child’s inherent creative talent. Because it is only when our youngest citizens practice knowing how to express such freedoms in the company of others who have the right to do the same, that our culture will evolve to one that can tolerate the uncertainty inherent in diversity – a culture that is courageous about addressing the problems that come with trying to thrive as an individual in the midst of a thriving, vibrant and loving society – the one that we made together.

One response to “Why we don’t do art in school (and why we should)

  1. Susan, you have made the connections among larger social issues and long-term consequences visible and compelling; the examples you highlight and your lovely writing make your argument even more powerful. Thank you!

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