An Arts Education Symposium

RICHARD KESSLER: Many people in this community still bristle when they hear the phrase “learning through and about the arts.” That there’s something about learning through the arts that still disturbs them. It’s the question of why we can’t just appreciate it in and of itself as an artistic value. Why does it have to be used to teach another subject? Why does it have to enter the school systems through a back door? Is it being marginalized? Is it being misunderstood? Is it being perverted to some degree? I think the great irony, I believe, is that this is really all happening in the schools. This debate passed a long time ago, but in the artistic community the discussion is still there. And for many people the discussion hasn’t even been had yet.

MAXINE GREENE: Learning through the arts is either a means to the end or it’s, like for Judy Burton, you know, she starts looking for transfer… and I think Howard [Gardner] objects to that. The other things that are so interesting to me, none of us can keep track of how these things slide and shift. It may be in a couple of years that multiple intelligences are thrust aside.

RICHARD KESSLER: Is there anything wrong with using musical form to help a student understand form in language? To help a student using a musical phrase, to help a student who happens to hear things in a more musically-oriented way, to understand how, to help them, in fact, write a sentence, see the beginning, middle, end in terms of form, in terms of sentence structure? Why would someone object to this?

HOLLIS HEADRICK: I think that a lot of it goes back to the traditional boundaries that people want to maintain. The arts are here, and in and of themselves they have an intrinsic value, and so we have to respect them in that regard… It’s not so much the use of them, I mean, it’s both the use of them but it’s also the view of them that they somehow have to come out of their special and exalted position, and that they can’t share the domain in learning of the other subject areas. I think one of the issues is that when you’re doing an interdisciplinary program you have to respect both the arts domain and the other learning area, whatever that is. And both of them need to be taught well. And frequently, the connections are not very strong and they tend to be surface, and so it makes the connections and the content and the subject matter and the goal of a particular lesson, or unit, or module, not very significant, because the art is not taught very well and neither is the other subject area. So I think that’s one of the things that really needs to be addressed and that’s an issue about pedagogy; it’s not about only the subject matter.

MAXINE GREENE: I think one of the things that should help is the understanding that all the disciplines are interpretive. There’s no objective world that is grasped. Each discipline is a kind of dialogue. Whatever people understand by constructivism brings them closer to what we’re trying to do: you create meaning, and you open channels. It’s false to see the disciplines as givens. I keep hoping that we can see connections like that. And that’s different than saying we learn math by studying music. It’s all an effort to open the dialogue, to interpret, to be there, to do it against your own lived life.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think that some of the fear, in some ways from composers and artists, is that if you’re using music or you’re using painting to explain science or to learn social studies, does that mean that math and social studies and communication arts are more important than painting or music? Are these secondary skills? And I think they’re worried that what they’re doing is becoming marginalized, and that people aren’t going to get a real sense that this is a pursuit that’s valid as its own pursuit, just like science is valid as its own pursuit.

POLLY KAHN: Well, I would argue that that marginalization is part of what got us into trouble 20 years ago. I agree completely with Hollis that part of the intrinsic challenge of building any arts education program is to strike that balance. What are the artistic, what are the goals and objectives with regard to the acquisition of knowledge without the art form. How does that, or does that not correlate with other areas of study? But that it is healthy for that to be a conversation, that it is an organic part of the program. And as long as the conversation is there, I think there’s more hope that both the artistic discipline and the other areas will be respected and measured against their own work. Part of what got us into such a tantrum years ago is that the arts in schools were so marginalized. When they came into question because dollars were tight, there was nobody to advocate for them. You know, the music teacher was the person that made the Christmas Assembly function – that was their job…

MAXINE GREENE: …Or the band.

POLLY KAHN: A very limited role. Part of what is a good outcome of the hard times we’ve been through is that cultural organizations got kicked into a greater understanding of the investment that they needed to make in the school system. They went in at a time when there were very few arts teachers there, and through that developed the skills of talking to teachers and administrators who were not themselves arts specialists. It developed a whole new language that they didn’t ever need to speak before. Now certainly in New York, arts specialists are coming back into the system, I think that both the schools and the cultural institutions are seeing what the arts can contribute to the schools because they experienced the absence of them, and that they’re very motivated to make sure that that arts specialist is part of the team. The arts specialist can uniquely contribute to make the presence of the arts in a school even stronger when they also have a partner in a cultural institution.

MAXINE GREENE: There’s a lot of resistance still among the art educators. Even Judy Burton thinks artists ought to have a course at Teachers College before you allow them into the classroom. And that really worries me.

RICHARD KESSLER: What I’ve found that a lot of people, and I would call them maybe non-practitioners, to some degree, have failed to see, is that, I think that schools are about entry points, and the entry points are different at every single school. We were going through some of these concepts at the American Music Center with some of the staff, and there were some questions raised about art for art’s sake. Why is it learning through the arts? Why is it learning through music? Why is it using music? Aren’t we diminishing it? And my feeling is if it really is about learning through and about the arts or through and about music, as you learn through music, you will learn about music. If you do a program in the schools and the schools tell you that they’re interested in an integrated curriculum, and they really want to see a way in which an artist and arts curriculum and arts focus can enliven work across the curriculum and can make these kinds of connections, they want to see this happen. They believe in this, and they will sometimes tell you if it’s not about that they’re just not interested. And that’s understanding the politics of an individual school. But you’ve got to find a way to get it in. And if you can find that entry point, if you can find that way through the door, then it can go a lot of ways, because it’s about art.

POLLY KAHN: Right.