An Immodest Proposal 

On why we need art in our schools

click to enlarge Caitlin Teeuwen experiences the importance of art - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • Caitlin Teeuwen experiences the importance of art

Call up the Colorado Springs School District 11 Web page, click on the appropriate links, and you'll find the middle school and high school arts curriculum. The list of courses is impressive and lengthy; it seems as if there must be a coherent, sequential and professionally-instructed arts program that any interested student could benefit from.

Alas, such is not the case. D-11's course catalog is a kind of Potemkin village, offering an idealized picture of schools that exist only in the fertile imaginings of administrators. Many of the courses are infrequently offered; others (particularly introductory courses) are only half-semester courses that lead nowhere. Yet others are only available to advanced-placement students. There are very few full-year courses in the fine arts that are taught by full-time arts teachers.

This isn't particularly surprising. What is surprising is that, in the face of a massive national retreat from arts instruction in public education at every level, D-11 manages to maintain any arts programs at all. Granted, they're pretty skeletal, but at least they exist.

Not so very many years ago, many elementary schools had extensive arts programs in which full-time teachers taught art, music and drama. The programs are still there, but the teachers are gone. Schools have simply made do with whatever in-house talent they might have, hoping that teachers will make up in enthusiasm for what they may lack in knowledge or talent.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's as if schools offered classes in French and German, hoping that one of the phys. ed. instructors spoke a foreign language well enough to teach it.

Miraculously, D-11 has actually expanded its elementary school arts program, and now every large elementary school has a full-time art teacher.

Smaller schools may share a teacher with two or three other schools, but the end result is the same: Every elementary school child in D-11 gets an hour of art instruction every week from a qualified professional.

Millie Yawn, who teaches art at Grant Elementary, sees art instruction in grades K-5 as particularly important. "If they (kids) have a positive and good foundation at the elementary level, then they'll choose to continue when art becomes an elective [after elementary school]," said Yawn.

And what about kids who don't get any art instruction prior to middle school? "Very few will start later."

Art instruction, in all its forms, is a victim of the ceaseless wars over public school curricula that have been waged for the last 20 years. Teach the basics! Kids have to be computer-literate! Our test scores have to be higher! Our dropout rate has to be lower! Smart kids need special instruction! Disadvantaged kids need special instruction! Don't teach evolution! And on, and on, and on.

What this has meant is that, faced with multiple societal pressures and made the scapegoat for many of our society's ills, the public schools can no longer easily address the basic question of education. It's a simple one: What should we teach in our schools to help create educated, responsible and thoughtful people who will help make a better society?

We all agree that kids need to be literate, to know math and science and history. Most of us would agree that some knowledge of other cultures is important, as well as economics and a foreign language. These are the basics; art, music, drama and design are seen as frills, occupying the same territory as beach volleyball and horticulture. They're fine, but they're not part of the core mission of most public schools. As Yawn points out: "Whenever budget pressures are felt, art instruction, instrumental music, and "gifted and talented' programs are always in danger."

We all know (or can imagine) what the consequences of widespread illiteracy or innumeracy would be to our country; precipitous economic decline and the loss of our status as the world's only superpower. We may, however, be about to find out what the consequences of artistic illiteracy will be, given that a generation is coming to age that has had little, if any, instruction in the arts.

Our international artistic hegemony is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, that few of us are even aware of it. Americans dominate movie-making, popular music, architecture (witness Frank Gehry's breathtaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain), painting, sculpture, graphic design, fashion, television production, music videos -- you name it.

American cultural dominance is not a consequence of economic power; it's a product of the compelling and powerful artistry of America's creative elite. And it may not be coincidental that this creative elite -- Madonna, Michael Crichton, Cindy Sherman, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Calvin Klein, just to name a few -- went to public or private schools when the arts were an integral part of school curricula.

Obviously, it's a bit of a stretch to say that elementary-school arts programs are responsible for our creative geniuses. On the other hand, schools that produce Nobel Prize winners in physics or Pulitzer Prize winners in literature are quick to claim some credit for the success of their students, so why not?

It may be that many of our schools, throwing their dollars into helping their students achieve technological literacy, and cutting art programs to buy a bunch of computers, are profoundly mistaken in their priorities. If the next century is anything like the last one, economic and military power will count for a great deal, but the power to form and shape people's lives and thoughts will go to the storytellers and mythmakers of our global culture.

In other words, to the artists. And let's hope that a few of them are eagerly learning ceramics, or printmaking, or photography, or drawing, or the saxophone, or anything that a teacher's knowledge and a student's enthusiasm may bring forward in D-11's classrooms this fall.

And if your child goes to a different district, ask about their elementary arts programs. You may find that teacher's assistants are responsible for art instruction or that harried classroom teachers are expected to teach an hour of art a week. Or you may find that administrators, strapped for funds, are going to cut already-starved programs even more.

So if you want your child to become a Wynton Marsalis, or a Debbie Allen, or a Don Coen, or a Parker Posey, maybe you ought to make your voice heard.

On the other hand, if you think the world needs more Internet billionaires and rapacious dealmakers, then we might as well leave things as they are.


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