Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Art education -- a discouraging glimpse

I found myself on the premises of a university art school right as the semester was changing, and the halls were crowded with big trash bins full of stuff that students and teachers had pitched on their way to freedom.  I rescued some nice blank drawing paper and looseleaf binders, and last night I went through my haul, throwing out the stuff I didn't want and sorting the stuff I did.

One of the binders contained curriculum notes and handouts for art education, a class to prepare elementary school art teachers.  We all know that elementary school art teachers are an endangered species in our brave new budget-cutting world, but as I read through these notes I decided maybe we can all do without elementary school art education without any bad consequences at all.

Let's not linger on the fact that whoever prepared the class notes was severely challenged in terms of both logic and English.  But in passing, note that, for instance, "Curved lines change directions to form spirals and connecting to become shapes," and "Vertical lines move straight up and down or standing upright."

But here's a page that really yanked my chain.  It's called "Ten Lessons the Arts Teach" and I dare you to defend more than one or two of them as reasonable claims.  Perhaps the author knew what he was talking about, but in the Reader's Digest version presented to our future teachers your guess is as good as mine.

"The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships."  I guess a qualitative relationship is like "A is better than B," but unless third-graders are doing critique sessions I wonder how they're learning to make these good judgments.

"The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer."  That is, if they haven't learned that already from math, literature and history.

"The arts celebrate multiple perspectives."  Great slogan for a T-shirt, but what does it mean?  It's OK to make blue grass, or red sky?  It's OK to make cubist drawings showing both front and back of the house?  Is that really what the third-graders are learning?

"The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed."  I wonder how much complex problem solving the kids get in elementary school art.  And I wonder how they figure out about fixed purposes.  What are fixed purposes anyway?

"The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know."  Ah, the Zen master speaks!  This happens in elementary school?

"The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects."  Science, math, history and physical education, among others, also teach this.  Probably more so than the arts do.

"The arts teach students to think through and within a material."  Hmmm.  Zen master, are the third-graders really learning to think within the paper? 

"The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said."  I'll go along with this one; having kids draw what happens in their family is one classic way of detecting emotional trauma.  But do the kids actually realize they're saying these things?  And if no trained observer is there to interpret what the child cannot say, does it in fact help children learn that when they say what cannot be said, it's just like not saying it?

"The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source."  And math enables us to have experience we can have from no other source, as does reading, and learning Spanish, and digging in the dirt, and being homeless and going to jail.

"The arts (sic) position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important."  Ah, this one is true.  Yes, kids, adults believe art is marginal, not even worth being on the test, but feel free to do it in your spare time if you get cut from the sports team.

This rant may be a cheap shot.  I don't know how this particular page of pap fits into the curriculum for the future art teachers; perhaps it was provided for them to kick holes in.  But in my crabby mood, brought on in no small part this week by the antics of our know-nothing Congress, this list sums up what's wrong with the way we educate teachers.  Feed them full of mushy platitudes that sound profound for at least two seconds but make them feel good about themselves.  And hope they can magically transcend this training to do something worthwhile with our children.  Good luck.


  1. I found your blog interesting this am. I have a degree in Art History and a minor in Art Studio.(fiber,clay, and photography) I found art education to be very mind opening. for younger students I think the basics are important, because as the education system progresses it seems to just tell you to forget the basics and be creative. Think outside the box. Which as an older student I found very difficult. But I keep plugging away at it. THanks for sharing. Lizzie

  2. Kathy, First I must tell you how much I have enjoyed your blog. Your postings are interesting and I love your work. Your comments today however struck a nerve with me. I am a fiber artist and retired elementary art teacher. I think it is unfortunate that you based your opinion of the value of art education on the "curriculum gibberish" you quoted in your blog. The quality of the individual art program and teaching staff is more important than the curriculum guidelines. If we care about art and kids we should recognize and support good art teachers and programs that teach skills and creativity. After 40+ years of teaching art to kids I can assure you that for many kids the art class is the only place where they learn to create something with their hands and express themselves visually. I still teach after school art classes for kids in my studio and my students come back year after year.....they can get enough of it. Expressing their ideas and creating with their own hands gives them joy. This is a link to my student art website:

  3. Hi Diane! I think it's a good idea to teach art in school, for many reasons. But I find it depressing to think that some professor is training teachers in this gibberish, and that people trained by that professor are going to be out teaching our children.

    I would love to recognize and support programs that teach skills and creativity, as you say. Unfortunately, the one I happened upon doesn't seem to fit that description.

  4. I switched from Art Ed to Fine & Applied Art after one week. Most of the excellent teachers I know find the education classes a JOKE. Just something they have to get through to graduate.

    The commenter who taught art for 40 years would have been a wonderful art teacher with or without the Ed classes.

    I'd love to be in a room full of 8 year olds explaining the Zen of being "one with the paper". LOL