Monday, August 06, 2007

Art as an Educational Battlefield

Two Arts education researchers are revisiting some conclusions that have been obfuscated since the study was released in 2000. In a New York Times article called "Book Tackles Old Debate: Role of Art in Schools" the article summarizes the work of Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland of Project Zero.

“When kids take a lot of art, they don’t improve in their core subject areas,” she said in an interview. “We simply found no evidence of that.”

When students who take art also generally do well in school, Ms. Winner and her co- researchers say, this may be because academically strong schools tend to have strong arts programs, or because families who value academic achievement also value achievement in the arts.

“You cannot conclude that because they’re taking art, they’re doing well in school,” Ms. Winner said. “There’s just no way to conclude anything about causality.”

In campaigning for keeping arts education, some educators say, advocates need to form more realistic arguments.

“Not everything has a practical utility, but maybe it’s experientially valuable,” said Elliot Eisner, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “Learning through the arts promotes the idea that there is more than one solution to a problem, or more than one answer to a question.”

Edward Pauly, the director of research and evaluation at the Wallace Foundation, which finances arts education, said that the arts can promote experiences of empathy and tolerance. “There is no substitute for listening to jazz, seeing ‘Death of a Salesman’ performed, reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ seeing the Vietnam War Memorial,” he said. “Those powerful experiences only come about through the arts.”

Still, such reasoning may not be sufficient to keep arts education alive in public schools. “That’s not the kind of argument that gets a lot of traction in a high-stakes testing environment,” said Douglas J. Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, Austin.

In a time when President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy emphasizes test results, the arts do not easily lend themselves to quantifiable measurements.

Art classes are often the first thing to be jettisoned from a crowded curriculum. As a result, Ms. Winner said, it is understandable that some arts advocates hew to the academic argument to keep the arts in the curriculum. “The arts are totally threatened in our schools,” she said. “Arts advocates don’t even think about whether they’re accurate — they latch onto these claims.”

“I am an arts advocate,” she added. “I just want to make plausible arguments for the arts.”

In other words, these authors fall into an education as business trap that is self-reinforcing within the system.

How are they jumping to wrong conclusions? Easy. By comparing art to the standardized curriculum they are bound by expectations and comparisons that no longer make sense in an information society operating a warp speed.

Art is no longer a silly nice to have offering. In fact, Daniel H. Pink argues in A Whole New Mind that a Master of Fine Arts degree is this generations equivalent of an MBA.
For nearly a century, western society in general, and American society in particular, has been dominated by a form of thinking and an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical. Ours has been the age of the “knowledge worker,” the well-educated manipulator of information and deployer of expertise. But that is changing. Thanks to an array of forces—material abundance that is deepening our nonmaterial yearnings, globalization that is shipping white-collar work overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether—we are entering a new age. It is an age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life—one that prizes aptitudes that I call “high concept” and “high touch.” High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.

As it happens, there’s a convenient metaphor that encapsulates the change I’m describing—and it’s right inside your head. Your brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is sequential, textual, and analytical. The right hemisphere is simultaneous, contextual, and synthetic. Of course, we enlist both halves of our brains for even the simplest tasks. And the respective traits of the two hemispheres have often been caricatured well beyond what the science actually reveals. But the legitimate scientific differences between the two hemispheres of the brain do yield a powerful metaphor for interpreting our present and guiding our future. Today, the defining skills of the previous era—the metaphorically “left brain” capabilities that powered the Information Age—are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the metaphorically “right brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. For individuals, families, and organizations, professional success and personal fulfillment now require a whole new mind. ”
Connecticut public schools have got to stop being the new Alabama of educational obstinacy and begin reinventing how our students are taught.

That starts with Arts as the new central paradigm for curriculum design.

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