Creating a model arts education

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`IT'S time for those who care deeply about the arts to have a united voice, rather than arguing fine points that are not fundamentally different. We're turning a corner on this, perhaps moving to a deeper level.'' Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and former United States commissioner of education, made the comment in reaction to ``controversy'' that, according to some press accounts, greeted a Reagan administration call for better arts education in the nation's schools. The report, entitled ``Toward Civilization,'' was submitted recently to Congress by the National Endowment for the Arts in response to the lawmakers' 1985 request for such a document.

Arts educators, while questioning various aspects of the report, expressed enthusiasm at the attention focused on their field. ``I was in Milan [Italy] at the time it came out, and I saw a USA Today headline, `Arts Education.' I never thought I'd live to see that day,'' said Howard Gardner, a Harvard University faculty member who has done research on creativity and its implications in learning.

Although he had some qualms about what he saw as the National Endowment's objective ``that everybody should be Kenneth Clarke,'' Dr. Gardner generally praised the report. He suggested that the federal government might follow up by sponsoring a competition for model arts education efforts.

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``I don't think you can come out with a report in Washington today that's not political,'' commented John Mahlmann, executive director of Music Educators National Conference of Reston, Va. ``But Frank Hodsoll, NEA chairman, treats the issue with the respect it deserves. That hasn't been done before.'' He proposed that authorities now ``translate it into more specific actions at the state level.'' Dr. Boyer has joined a panel set up the New Jersey Legislature to do just that.

``Written to fulfill the Congressional mandate,'' says the preface, ``this report is also intended as an open letter to the American people, to the educational community, to those who love the arts and understand their importance in education. For it is in the people's hands that the future of arts education rests.''

Though some states have raised the standards in the arts disciplines in conjunction with education reform as a whole, the report says that ``basic arts education does not exist in the United States today.'' Meanwhile, the majority of American children are unlikely to be exposed to the arts through family experiences. The report cites recent data from a range of sources to support these and other expressed concerns. The nation, thus, is left with a cultural void, the NEA concludes.

Among the solutions proposed are sequential arts curricula (replacing the more commonplace random lessons) in all arts disciplines; testing of student achievement in both arts production and arts appreciation; more classroom treatment of arts history and criticism; higher standards in certifying elementary classroom teachers; and firmer support of the arts from school administrators.

``Toward Civilization'' takes note of exemplary school systems and programs throughout the country. In addition, there is a critique of textbooks, and some analysis of the current dearth of arts education research.

Prof. Brent Wilson of the faculty at Pennsylvania State University's School of Visual Arts was principal author of the report. The tone, priorities, and final wording were substantially influenced by endowment chairman Hodsoll. He reported that once research was completed, the actual writing began last spring. ``We spent a lot of time talking with people who could be affected by the outcome,'' the chairman added.

Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island helped found the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities two decades ago. Often critical of the Reagan administration in areas such as foreign policy and education, he says, ``This major report by the NEA will hopefully serve as the starting point for an entirely new approach to the important areas of arts education.''

Rep. Sydney Yates (D) of Illinois, chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for the NEA and NEH, recently challenged Mr. Hodsoll on his proposed revamping of NEA's grant review process - the latest skirmish in a continuing contest between the congressman and Reagan-appointed NEA and NEH chairmen. Mr. Yates's reaction to ``Toward Civilization,'' therefore, is an olive branch of sorts: ``I think it's a very constructive and essential report. ... With budget restrictions in the last few years, the first subjects to suffer have been art and music. That's unfortunate.''

In addition to the claims of controversy, a recent press report contrasted ``Toward Civilization'' with ``Coming to Our Senses,'' a 1977 bellwether call for reform of American arts education, recently revised. David Rockefeller Jr., who was chiefly responsible for producing ``Coming to Our Senses,'' responds that the two volumes have one mission, although there are some differences in approach. ``There's room for both,'' he says.

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