Arts (Not In) Education

Dewey21C guest blogger Jane Remer makes a provocative statement I have always wondered/suspected.

The Arts Just Don’t Fit in Most of Our Schools

The arts community – arts educators, arts organizations, artists who work with schools, other friends of the arts–has tried and failed for years to make the case for the arts in every student’s life and learning environment. Claims abound for the arts as important intellectual and experiential domains as well as exceedingly effective instrumental bridges to other usually non-arts ends. These claims are rarely backed up by solid empirical research and when they are, the evidence is overwhelmingly correlational, not causal. These claims are almost never made by school people, K-20 and beyond, and only occasionally uttered by policy makers, whether top down legislators or bottom up teachers, leaders and district superintendents.

Because the concept is so depressing, one may attempt to discredit her by wondering if she truly has a basis for making this claim. If you read her bio at the bottom of the entry, you see that her background makes it very difficult to dismiss her. She has both practical and theoretical experience attempting to cultivate arts programs in some of the toughest educational environments around. One of her previous entries as guest blogger asked, “What Can We Do to Make the Arts Count As Education?” In that entry, she lays out some of the reasons the arts aren’t gaining traction in those schools which it is present.

Other than suggesting local action, Ms. Remer feels she doesn’t have any real strategies for getting the arts into schools.

Over this past weekend I tried working from the premise the arts would find no place in our schools. What were alternative outlets that could be developed? Schools would appear to be best medium for disseminating instruction and exposure but if that option is out, what is left? There are after school programs and summer camps. Unless the arts community can develop a compelling argument for parents about why their children should be allowed to participate, it is likely the groups currently being served in this way will continue to be the only ones.

We can look to the example of early educators in the United States who patiently approached people to convince them to let their children attend school. That might work but, don’t forget that the real progress in enrollment came when education became compulsory by force of law, and sometimes, at the end of a gun barrel. Tirelessly approaching people is one thing, but I am not sure the arts world is ready to lobby for martial enforcement quite yet.

Technology would appear to be the medium possessing the greatest potential for replacing schools as the method of arts education. I confess though that I suffer from a lack of imagination in this respect. I am currently only imagining progress in terms of the tools that already exist – People learning to paint or play bass from online sources. Perhaps they got the brushes, easels and instrument from a local arts organization seeking to make materials more available.

That’s all well and good except there is also the problem of a disconnect of what happens between the situation today and the one in my imagination to make young people excited and interested in the arts that they claim the free art tools and instruments and go home to practice? In essence, what makes 250,000 Venezuelan kids commit to El Sistema, and how do we get that to happen here? Smarter minds than mine have asked that very question.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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