Defend the Arts!

A report and polemic from the Arts-in-Education Conference.

by Gregory Nissen

Do you remember the smell of valve oil the trumpet players used in high school band? Or the gurgling sound of a potter's wheel in ninth-grade art? Or the surge of euphoria backstage when the curtain closed on the opening night of your sixth-grade musical?
If so, you're probably over 28, or you're one of the lucky ones whose school districts were smart enough-or rich enough-to have funded arts education in spite of the budget axes that have been falling for a dozen years on arts programs throughout the country.
Artists know the limitless value the arts can bring young people, but alas, the political climate is not with us. Defending the arts in schools to legislators, one feels like a hated vaudeville entertainer at whom the audience delights in hurling tomatoes. Politicians rack up brownie points with voters by demonizing the National Endowment for the Arts and by claiming that they are holding the line on deficit spending (although the NEA budget constitutes approximately 1/5,000th of the federal budget!)
It was in this sobering context that the Washington State Arts Commission recently hosted a three-day conference on "Arts in Education" in Tacoma. Administrators, teachers and artists met for workshops and performances. What follows are summaries of facts and ideas stimulated by that conference.
The abundance of artistic activity in our region has created the illusion that an equally vigorous artistic presence thrives in our public schools. But the real situation is dismal: Outside of Seattle, which has better-than-average arts funding, most students receive no arts training at all. Commonly, sixth-graders are presented with a choice of either music or visual arts, and it stops at that. Dance and theater usually are not even options. Nor is there a generally agreed upon idea of what is to be taught, or why it should be taught. Long-term curriculum planning in the arts is left by default to individual teachers who are, to say the least, overworked.
Sometimes a current appears on troubled seas to carry a boat toward harbor. That may be the case with the legislation called "Goals 2000: Educate America Act," passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in March of 1994. For the first time, resources are coming from the federal government and going to the states 'for their school districts to implement plans to "improve student learning." Specifically, the act provides money and guidelines for the States to develop "consistent standards of achievement" in various subjects-including the arts-by the year 2000. But the feds can't mandate how the States do this; their participation is voluntary.
Here in Washington, the "Commission on Student Learning" is charged with using that money. So, an unprecedented window of opportunity has opened here as a result of that federal act-and of Education Reform Law E.S.H.B. 1209, passed by the Washington State Legislature in 1993. Presumably, the arts will now be included in the core subjects that will form the basis of school curriculums for the foreseeable future. The challenge for arts advocates is to transform this abstract piece of legislation into actual lesson plans, right down to the gurgling potter's wheel.
But that's a really tough sell, considering the attitudes that abound today. How many times, for instance, have we heard that children will be needing to learn skills to "compete in the global market..."? While the Republican establishment wants everyone to rally 'round the flag of budget cuts (with the glaring exception of prison and military budgets), a dismissive attitude has grown up around the arts-one that says that all children really need are the "basics," and that arts are a "frill."
Let's look at the consequences of that attitude: These legislators would rather have a generation of athletically fit and clinically rational people, adept at numbers and concepts and basketball, but inexpressive and dull, ignorant of the fire of a Beethoven string quartet, or the keen social commentary in a West African folk tale or a canvas by Courbet, unacquainted with the struggle to master a saxophone, the triumph of finishing a mural, the soul-searching journey required to act a part in a Shakespeare tragedy.
Do we really want our workplaces in the next generation to be filled with masses of secretly unhappy women obsessed with food, and cutthroat men obsessed with promotion and profits? If we do, then by all means let's keep the schools free of all subjects which might stimulate independence, self-esteem, self-expression, and creativity.
Reclaiming the millions of dollars of arts funding lost in the last decade's budget cuts is a matter of educating politicians and the public. The biggest obstacle we face is widespread ignorance of the compelling value of an arts education. At the conference there were many eloquent voices testifying to these effects. The benefits of an arts education constitute an embarrassment of riches so overflowing it's an amazement legislators have not asked to double and triple the arts budgets.
Do you want to reduce the teen pregnancy rate? Give adolescents poetry workshops where they can learn to express their feelings and fears about sexuality. Do you want to end gang warfare? Dance and acting workshops for "at risk" youth can be one excellent tool in turning them around: which would you rather do, go to "boot camp" or dance in "West Side Story?" The arts are about as close as we're going to get to a panacea for the violence plaguing our schools.
Traditional values, anyone? The arts enhance self-discipline, perseverance, and hard work! At Prairie High School in the Battle Ground school district, high school seniors have been directing one-act plays. Conference participant Sarah Lloid soberly assesses: "Communication is the most important skill. Without communication, nothing would fit together and the whole play would be a disaster." Reality bit back to Jon Davern: "Sometimes things don't always work out as planned, or take twice as long as you originally thought."

World peace, while we're at it? The arts promote tolerance, self-esteem, and cooperation. They easily cross cultural boundaries that language cannot. They reach students who are otherwise disempowered and disenfranchised by providing joyful and diverse means of self-expression and achievement.

Brief performances and workshops at the conference gave participants some direct encounters with ways in which artists are involving school children in the arts. Poet Judith Roche led a workshop demonstrating a variety of exercises which engage entire classrooms of children in processes of composition, group decision-making, and detailed discussion of the meanings of words and images.
Dr. Daniel Barry, jazz teacher, told us in reference to the shot heard 'round the world in the American Revolution, that instead of bullets, he wants to send "jazz licks that will be heard around the world." The WeeHah Theater (John Clancy and Kieffer Denning) demonstrated their way of combining storytelling and acting improv to tap into childrens' spontaneity and creativity. Their class is set up in a way that makes it impossible for any child to "fail," while emphasizing the value of teamwork. Visual artist Frederic Wong showed how Chinese pictograms originate in pictures of the objects they represent-the pictogram meaning "bright," for instance, consisting of pictures of the sun and moon. Students learn artistic styles and techniques from ancient China as a way to understand how people in ancient times lived and understood their world.
Artist Kali Bradford showed slides and videos of students creating giant sand sculptures-animals and mythic creatures up to 30 feet in length. Meredith Essex helps students paint murals on school buses. Ruth Hayes showed animated films created by children in her workshops.
Jody Patton, Executive Director of the "Experience Music Project" (Jimi Hendrix) reminded us that novelist Jules Verne portrayed a trip to the moon fully 100 years before it happened-and that Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio was common knowledge 50 years before cellular phones. The correlation between artistic achievement and technological progress is both obvious and overlooked. There is some aspect of art in many industrial and corporate careers such as graphic designer, architect, video producer, technical illustrator, and interior designer.
But the artist in our time who wants to prosper has a painfully persistent dilemma: trying to tell at what point creative fulfillment becomes "selling-out"? Usually what corporations offer artists is a devil's bargain: We'll let you do art and pay you handsomely if you promote our product. If Sony Inc. puts an ad in the classifieds for a graphic designer you can bet some hungry, talented, young painter will in a very short time be cranking out cover designs for video cassette boxes.
The whole idea of "education reform" has recently seen some redefining-or perhaps I should say "battering." In the 1960s and 1970s it meant leaving behind the rigid and frequently fear-inducing structures of conventional classrooms: authoritarian teachers, grading, tracking, and testing, textbook-centered learning, and toward open classrooms, innovative curriculums, and experience-centered learning. But in the late '70s along came lower test scores, and higher drop-out rates. Thanks in part to President Reagan's fiscal irresponsibility of catastrophic proportions, we had an epidemic of broken families, more crime, and drugs. Conservatives freaked. They promoted a "back-to-basics" movement in the '80s that threw out the entire humanistic agenda of schools and focused on drilling for skill and eliminating "frill." Reform, indeed.
Now that education is suffering from those cutbacks, "reform" in the '90s has become a hybrid value: maintain the rigid classroom dynamics and the obsession with accountability, but improve overall performance, and not just in the "basics."
I believe it is essential that progressives in education support this movement, flawed though it is. If we can succeed in reinvigorating the curriculums of our schools, then we'll have a foundation on which to change the format of education, still stuck in an industrial society model.
Until fairly recently, our nation's material prosperity has enabled a basic level of arts funding in the schools. Throughout the 20th century, most school districts have allocated funds for high school bands and glee clubs, drama programs, and arts teachers. But in a consumer-based economy, the arts can flourish only so long as the economic engine is roaring. Especially in these anxious times, when reactionaries throw into question the entire 220 year-old premise of tax dollars benefiting the public good, voters and their school boards defend only whatever seems to be economically productive (football stadiums, senior proms, algebra, physics, computers). Whatever is not is junked.
Now that educational reform - of a sort - is underway for the first time since the 1960s, defending the arts has become an urgent priority. We may not get another chance like this in a generation. Call the Washington State Arts Commission and ask to help! (206-753-3861)

Gregory Nissen is a composer, non-profit theater producer and pianist at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. He is a rostered Artist-In-Residence, a grant given by the Washington State Arts Commission

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Contents on this page were published in the June/July, 1995 edition of the Washington Free Press.
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