Instruction in the Arts: A Waning US Tradition

THE pervasive opinion that arts education is a frill or peripheral to the goals of basic education is a recent notion that doesn't jibe with American tradition, says one professor of art education. For the greater part of the country's history, arts instruction "was well staffed, well financed, and a source of prestige," says Diana Korzenik, a teacher who specializes in the history of art education at the Massachusetts College of Art, the oldest public art education institution in the United States.

Support for arts education "really started to drop off in the post-Johnson era," she says. "It's phenomenal to see what a dramatic change there has been in values."

In the 19th century, it was understood that if you wanted to be an architect, a furniture maker, or a scientist, "you needed to have skills with the visual arts. It was seen as job preparation," says Dr. Korzenik, author of "Drawn to Art: A 19th-Century American Dream" (1986).

Massachusetts actually passed a Drawing Act of 1870, mandating drawing instruction for children and adults to ensure that they would be properly prepared to enter the work force. "The idea was that you learned discipline, precision, and how to be inventive," Korzenik says.

Louis Agassiz, the biologist who developed the biology curriculum at Harvard University, "required that everyone who studied with him learn to draw," she says. Whether sketching a fish or a plant, "the way you understood it was by drawing."

Perhaps a reason kids today seem disinterested in learning, she says, is "that the channels [of learning] that are exciting have been lost."

The reason attitudes have changed is "very complex," she says. Perhaps one is that "adults themselves feel alienated from the artmaking process, so they distrust it for children," she says. "The whole development of abstraction in art requires a very sophisticated viewer," and a lay person's typical reaction to such art is that any child could do it. "But what children do and what abstract artists do is very different."

Another reason, Korzenik says, could be that the growth in professionalism of various teachers' organizations has meant that "every subject matter is competing for literally minutes in the school day." School boards "have had to nibble at something, and they have done it at the arts, which use to be the core."

What could remedy the situation?

"As one of my students said, 'Things are so bad that they have to get better,' " Korzenik says.

"There's such a forgetting about the human dimension and the way learning happens that maybe, as resources get tighter, people will be forced to think, and perhaps they'll conclude that, 'Hey, if [the arts] help children learn, maybe we'll have to put this back.' "

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