“It’s not just that beauty is neutral with respect to justice. Beauty is, actually, very much leading us to justice… Plato was right; beauty is a call on us to create something better”
– Elaine Scarry
This is a story about how my understanding about the importance of arts in education has shifted over the last decade—from arguments about the intrinsic versus extrinsic merits of the arts to claims that arts participation increases test scores, literacy, reading comprehension, to theories of transfer to other subjects and, of course the argument advocating for art for art’s sake—I’ve advocated from many of these positions in various conversations and for a variety of audiences and stakeholders.
Over time, however, my focus began to shift from an arts-education centric mode as I became more immersed in the history and philosophy of education, foundational work around learning theories and education reform initiatives, from instructional strategies to loftier visions of what it means to be educated in this state, and in this country at this present time.
This shift has had the effect of lifting the veil of perceived neutrality from my worldview—particularly with regard to education. I have been influenced by educational thinkers such as Paolo Friere, Joan Wink and Parker Palmer—among others—to see education as both inherently political and radically about love—far from the technocratic, “objective” dialogues that are taking place in high-level education circles today. I discovered mentor texts that spoke of a view of education where the arts are valued because students’ authentic lives and experiences are valued and art-making is an inherently human way to express what it means to be alive and connected in ways that no other mode of communication can fully match.
How could the arts be seen as a nice but nonessential frill in schools where we purport to be charged with the development of citizens? How could those of us charged with advocating for arts experiences for all students be content with idea of “arts enrichment” and the afterthought mentality that comes along with that label? How can we abide “arts specials,” during which “academic” subject area teachers share common planning time, excluding the arts from the larger conversation about what and how to teach our students? How do the arts allow themselves to be relegated to before- and after-school programming—drummed out of the legitimate school day and serving only the self-selected? How could we not understand our own power and place in teaching students to perceive the world—not just as it is—but as it might be?
These days, I am delving into concepts related to imagination and democracy in our public schools, tied in large part to the important work done by Maxine Greene at the Lincoln Center Institute (LCI) This work has directly informed and shaped the education programs at the Flynn Center, where I now work, from their inception. LCI has a clear scope that focuses on providing aesthetic experience in public schools with an explicit purpose of fostering a more socially just, critically engaged democracy. It is heady and inspiring stuff.
When Sir Ken Robinson came to speak at the University of Vermont last year for the Rowland Foundation’s Conference on High School Transformation, he declared that we were living in truly revolutionary times. I most sincerely hope he is right. The current educational course our nation is pursuing is untenable and downright unacceptable. To maintain a single-minded focus on educational outcomes that can be reduced to test scores that look at how well a student can internalize the accepted cultural assumptions about knowledge and intelligence for economic ends without regard for civic or environmental responsibility is unconscionable.
On the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, with Chicago’s public school teachers in their second week of strikes and another presidential election looming, I hope that more Vermonters actively engage in education conversations that question why we structure teaching and learning the way we do; why teachers are not given more support to creatively innovate and custom-tailor their curriculums to their particular students; and why students today are trained to learn specific ideas, but not taught how to participate in a democratic society—or explore the legacy that explains why participation matters in the first place.
Achievement, Accountability, and Academic Rigor have a place in the conversation, clearly, but they ought not be the sole gatekeepers for educational experience unless what we hope for our children can be relegated to a scope so small and uninspiring. I am hopeful that creative and independent-thinking Vermonters can continue to carve a path through the unmitigated madness that is the current national debate in education to envision a better future for our children through conversations about the role of imagination in learning, of learning to see a better future and learning that we are actively creating our world through the choices we make, with implications for ourselves, our neighbors and our planet.
The arts might be one of the few tools powerful enough to help shift our education paradigm and lead the way to a collective future we hope may exist for our children.
Stacy Raphael is the former Education and Community Programs Manager at the Vermont Arts Council, now Associate Director for School Programs at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. Follow Stacy on Twitter! @sraphael