Thursday, October 8, 2009

Educating Too Many Professionals

[update: in the original post, I mistakenly wrote that I was quoting Barry. In actuality, it was Barry asking the questions and Ian himself who had written the responses. My apologies.]

Speaking of Createquity, the last few days has seen Ian posting some conversations he had with Barry Hessenius. The second installment caught my eye, because it deals with art education.

The part of Ian's response that stuck out to me was this:

The reason is simple: the kids who fall in love with learning to play the tuba or do a pirouette today are the adults who are going to be competing with each other for gigs and grant money tomorrow. If we are successful in our efforts and ensure that every child has the opportunity to experience all the arts they want to during their formative years, what happens to them once they get to college?
Now, Ian precedes that statement with an important set of disclaimers about how he's not dumping on the concept of studying the arts, and he doesn't want the arts to be an elite discipline--all of which is valid, and I appreciate what he's getting at.

So the question is a good one. What would we do in our dream scenario that arts education doubled the amount of people interested in the arts?

The problem, I think, is with what our arts education currently frames its goal to be. The goal, as Ian sees it, is framed right there at the top of that chunk: "the kids who fall in love with learning to play the tuba or do a pirouette today are the adults who are going to be competing with each other for gigs and grant money tomorrow."

For the arts education system today, arts education is a professional system: it exists to create arts professionals. And in the higher-education world, this is correct, and is as it should be: once you're majoring in theater, you should be aiming to be practicing theater for your life.

Yet for some reason, this thinking exists even in elementary school. When we teach elementary school-kids music, we teach them how to play the tuba. And then the expectation is that, if they're good at it, they'll keep playing tuba and eventually get a good job at an orchestra playing the tuba. If they're not good at it, well then, they'll get something out of the rest of their education.

I'd like to contrast that with English. The philosophy behind English education, at least as I was exposed to it, was that English was a language, and therefore it enfused every part of the world around us. It didn't matter whether or not you were going to go into the literary criticism field one day, as a bank teller or as a media mogul or as a tuba player, your ability to think critically in English and communicate fluently in English was a key part of your job.

That's how we should tackle art. Our elementary school program should be an artistic literacy program, not an art professional program. Kids should be learning how to listen to music, how to express themselves in music--whether or not we train them in specific skills.

The example that resonates for me comes from Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed. Boal describes a short-lived Peruvian artistic literacy program where students were given cameras, and asked a series of questions which they had to answer through photography. One question, for example, was "Where do you live?" and one student responded to it with a portrait of his older brother, whose lip had been chewed off by rats in the night. The teacher asks, "Why did you take that photo to answer 'Where do you live?'" and the student responds, "Because I live in a country where these sort of things can happen."

That student learned something powerful about arts, communication, and critical thinking. Ian seems to imply that this student will now want to become a professional photographer, and therefore we'll need to make space for him. I'm not sure that's necessarily true. Condoleeza Rice was given a beautiful full training as a concert pianist, but that didn't take her away from the realm of foreign policy.

Actually, I'm being a little unfair. What Ian really means is this:
If we’re trying to hook 55 million children on the arts in a system that pours 3.2 million new high school graduates into the market every year, even if only 10% of them decide to pursue professional careers, what happens to them when, by the NEA’s own figures, only 2 million artists can coexist in that market at any given time?
The 10% figure is a lot more reasonable. But on the other hand, it is somewhat looking at the glass half-empty. So, 10% of 55 million children on the arts adds another 5.5 million children to our 2 million artist ceiling. That leaves 49.5 million art-hooked but not professional people.

So, there's two options to what those 49.5 million will do. One is they'll say, "Well I didn't get to be an artist," and then never call us ever again. The other is that they'll say, "Boy, I love the arts, and I want the arts to still be a part of my life." And then they become our concert-goers, our donors, our audience.

If they become our audience, then the 2 million cap that Ian references will probably be raised. By how much? Difficult to tell. But surely as our audience grows, so do our artists.

But I agree with Ian that it won't just happen. If we teach those 49.5 million kids that the only way to participate in the arts is by being a professional, we shouldn't be surprised if they fail to materialize in our audiences. But if we teach them to hunger after any sort of connection with arts, and give them the opportunity to connect with arts in however their lives can connect to it, then they'll be the engine that drives the 5.5 million who practice it full time.

And suppose those 49.5 million turn into voters, into advocates for the arts. Then we'll have a much better chance of turning around the negativity towards arts funding, the lack of public support. And then we'll definitely have a shot of shifting the 2 million.

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