Artists of the Possible

The battle for arts education in the public schools

The battle for arts education in the public schools

by Greg Cunningham

A debate is roiling across the country about what students should learn in our public schools. From how to teach certain aspects of our country’s history to what kind of literature students should be reading, the philosophy behind educational curricula continues to frame the lessons student receive in their classrooms.

This debate is not new. While the topics and subjects vary, the question of what a full and rich education means has been debated for decades—actually, centuries. Unfortunately, what has also not changed is the foundation upon which change is predicated. Change is not initiated, at the local, state, or federal level, for the benefit of students. It is only initiated to solve a political problem or appease a powerful constituency.

A significant example of education as a political problem arose in 1989, when the National Governors Association, chaired by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, announced as one of its education goals that “…children will demonstrate competency in core subjects: English, math, science, history, and geography.”

That definition of core subjects left some teachers feeling left behind. There was no arts education in the core subjects. When President Bush announced the America 2000 initiative in 1991, the core subjects remained the same, and subjects such as music, art, drama, and debate were defined as “extracurricular” by then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

There has always been a link between the major cultural advances of a society and the discoveries made by science. Eyeglasses, the printing press, and the telescope were all invented during the Renaissance, to name just a few “modern” conveniences we take for granted today. Historians and sociologists have long connected the advancement of a society with the advancement of its cultural works.

Artists, actors, and musicians refused to take the designation “extracurricular” sitting down. The National Coalition for Music Education was formed to push for comprehensive arts education in public schools. The group released a report in March 1991, titled Growing Up Complete, an aggregation of \ hundreds of musicians pushing to move arts education to the forefront of debate. It landed with a thud louder than a drumbeat.

It was not until February 25, 1992, that the tide turned. Michael Greene, then head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, engaged a captive audience during the Grammy Awards telecast that evening. In his keynote speech, he said,

”The very idea that you can educate young people in a meaningful way without music and art is simply absurd….If current trends persist, music will no longer be a universal entitlement, but one of the markers future historians point to as the beginning of a cultural caste system tied to personal and class economics….If a child has never been inspired by a poem, never been moved to tears by a great symphonic work…why on earth should we believe that our future generations could even be bothered by the banning of records or the burning of books?”

Immediately after the speech, Secretary Alexander called a friend to ask, “Who the heck is Mike Greene?” The secretary knew he had a political problem on his hands.

That spring, The America 2000 Arts Partnership was born. While it did not include arts education as a core subject, it did put forth standards for arts education. Not until the Clinton Administration was arts education elevated to a core educational requirement, officially signed into law on March 31, 1994.

Numerous studies have linked exposure to and success in arts education to other foundational subjects like math and English. In Broward County, Florida, home of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, more than 15,000 students participate in debate education at every grade level, elementary through high school. Many of these students have used this training to support gun reform advocacy since the horrific shooting at their high school in 2018. The March for Our Lives organization, founded by David Hogg, a survivor of the shooting, is credited with motivating hundreds of thousands of new young voters to participate in the 2020 presidential election. Students such as Hogg are not just furthering their education with their debate skills but impacting elections and future policy decisions across the United States.

As school curriculum continues to be debated in states, cities and small towns across the country, and in Congress, the lesson from the arts education initiative is clear: political problems demand political solutions. Arts education was not made a core subject because research demonstrated its importance for students. It was added only after a political firestorm was ignited by a live televised challenge.

In an ideal utopia, education decisions would be based solely on the needs of students and determined by the goal of ensuring a well-informed, well-rounded high school graduate ready for the economic and social challenges ahead. But in our polarized, politicized dystopia, nothing happens unless votes, elections and political power are at stake. This is the world in which education advocates must maneuver, heeding lessons from the past and using politics to come as close as possible to serving the best interests of students.

As much as we might lament the infiltration of politics into education, it should come as no surprise. As students of the arts, we should know that politics is one of them. The grand master of statecraft Bismarck taught that “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”

It’s up to us, as practitioners of the art of politics, to keep pushing the next best to be always better.

Some information in this blog was obtained from here, The Untold Story of How Music and Arts Education Became Core Subjects.

Greg Cunningham is a Learning Specialist with JFYNetWorks.

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