Sunday, February 17, 2008

Why Art Education?

Throughout my years of teaching, I have encountered several different philosophies about what the role of art education should be within our schools, both by administrators and parents. In the last fifteen years, huge strides have been made to reform our society’s ideas about why art education is so important to everyone’s education. We know that art education in schools improves test scores. We know art education enhances critical thinking and problem solving. We know art education fosters a well-rounded student. But there is more.

My philosophy mirrors that of my training at the Rhode Island School of Design art education department and the National Association of Art Education, which is that in addition to providing the above-mentioned qualities, art education must be taught in a way that will address those issues AND provide a vehicle for students to learn about art, talk about art, make informed opinions and decisions about art as they get older and have the confidence in their own abilities to do so.

The mere presence of art class in schools will NOT increase test scores. Nor will it make your child more creative or better at solving complex problems. The content must be presented by a trained professional in a manner which is stimulating and challenging, which has a goal and meaningful purpose, and which will teach students skills they can and may apply later in various ways.

I want my students to understand that art is something they CAN do. I want them to have the confidence and motivation to view works of art and design and make informed decisions about it without intellectual intimidation or ignorance. I want my students to understand that art is not limited to a talented few, nor does it come easily to anyone, but rather it is part of the human experience, something to be learned, cultivated and practiced.

Recently, the National Association of Art Education (NAEA) published an advocacy pamphlet for parents to help communicate the goals and services of arts education in schools. One of their key statements was as follows:

Art Means Work.

Beyond the qualities of creativity, self-expression, and communication, art is a type of work. This is what art has been from the beginning. This is what art is from childhood to old age. Through art, our students learn the meaning of joy of work—work done to the best of one’s ability, for it’s own sake, for the satisfaction of a job well done. There is a desperate need in our society for a revival of the idea of good work: work for personal fulfillment; work for social recognition; work for economic development. Work is one of the noblest expressions of the human spirit, and art is the visible evidence of work carried to the highest possible level. Today we hear much about productivity and workmanship. Both of these ideals are strengthened each time we commit ourselves to the endeavor of art. We are dedicated to the idea that art is the best way for every young person to learn the value of work.

I completely agree with this statement, both as an artist and as an art educator. I try to help my students realize that creating artwork is a challenging process for artists, myself included. As students grow older, their confidence often begins to diminish and uninformed, negatively biased opinions about art and their own abilities, begin to take hold unless a system has been previously put in place that will help them rise above such misconceptions. Accompanying these feelings is also often a notion that art should be simple, easy, and solely recreational. This attitude only serves to eventually diminish the importance of art and art education in the adult minds of our society, who then try to deem it as irrelevant. One of my prime objectives, and one shared by millions of art educators nation-wide, is to eliminate this attitude towards the purpose and function of art education in our schools. To be sure, art education serves a unique role in school, but it must not be confused with recreation, therapy or “busywork”.