Why the Arts are Marginalized in Our Schools: One More Time

by Elliot W. Eisner

That one must make the case that students should be given significant opportunities to work within and to experience the arts is itself a telling commentary on our conception of education or on our values. Yet, almost ceaselessly that case must be made­and more often than not unsuccessfully. When push comes to shove, when budgets are to be cut the arts are among the most likely candidates. Given the fact that we build palaces to house them, erect concert halls to hear them, construct theaters to see them, pay performers of the arts fortunes to provide them, why the discrepancy between our out-of-school behavior and our in-school priorities?

One reason that we seldom entertain is that while we believe the arts to be important, they are simply not well taught in school. Most elementary teachers know little about the arts and often trivialize them in their classrooms. Parents sense this and vote with their feet; they want their children engaged in more substantive experiences in school.

There may be some truth to this scenario, but it is a scenario that applies as much to science, foreign languages, and math as it does to the arts. Why then, if the arts are not unique in the level of quality with which they are taught, are they so vulnerable to budget cuts and so low on our educational priorities?

One reason is that the arts are not regarded as useful­pleasurable yes, useful no. Now utility is a notion that needs analysis. Some things are useful because they help you do things that are valuable­ like getting into college or a fine university. For college admission, arts courses have no such utilities. In fact, courses in the arts are liabilities for admission to some selective universities. For some admission committees high transcripts that list courses in the arts reveal that the aspiring candidate avoided "solid" courses and instead opted for what I suppose could be called "gasses". Other universities, including my own, eliminate arts course grades when the committee calculates grade point average. A high school student who aspires to be a practicing artist and who receives A grades in all of his or her arts courses receives no credit for those courses when competing for admission, but woe be the same student who gets a C in physics. And irony of ironies, the same university that ignores grades in the arts at the high school level confers degrees in the arts for students on its own campus.

The reason for the marginalization of the arts is, I think, related to a deeply, but tacitly held conception of mind. It is a conception of mind that is rooted in Plato's view of human enlightenment and in the legacy of the Enlightenment on our conception of rationality. For both Plato and Descartes it was mathematics that was closest to God; to really know, one had to free one's self from the senses and, instead, address what is abstract, general, and timeless. The arts by contrast, are concret, particular, and timely. And to make matters worse, they are emotional! Genuine understanding depends upon detached objectivity and it is such understanding for which the schools are responsible. In short, their contribution to enlightenment is marginal at best, at worst they are misleading. And, in any case, they have little to do with rationality.

To make the arguments I have made is not to suggest that educational policy is made by people who consult Plato or Descartes before deciding what knowledge is of most worth. No, the problem is much deeper. These prejudices regarding the nature of mind are so ingrained in our culture that they are not recognized for what they are, and should there be any doubt, the university legitimizes them, thus playing a major conservative role in constraining the possibilities of schooling.

Imagine, if you will, the consequences on the secondary and even the elementary school curriculum if by some magic admission to selective and not so selective universities required a portfolio of paintings, a video tape of a dance improvisation, a collection of poetry, a film of an acting performance, or a tape of a recital. I dare say that if admission to college required such submissions there would be a riptide through the grades that would flood even the kindergarten. What if, to continue this mind experiment, the S.A.T.s were also excized of their multiple choice items in language and math and instead assessed actual performance in the arts. Where then would the arts be among our educational priorities?

The deep point that I am making is that the place of the arts in the 108,000 schools in America is not likely to significantly change without a reconception of what schools are for, what it is that nurtures mind in all of its splendid manifestations, and what universities themselves must change to open, rather than to constrain, the education of our children. This is a tall order, but it is necessary. Without a revision of the possibilities of mind and the potential of schooling we are likely to continue to fiddle with the chrome of education while employing a motor that does not have the capacity to get us where we want to go. The time has come to look under the hood.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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