Recently, I accompanied my daughter's seventh-grade class to a local art museum where we were to view exhibits of modern African and African-American art. Like too many school tours of museums, ours turned out to be more about self-exploration than aesthetic exposure.
First we were rushed through a room of magnificent Elizabeth Catlett sculptures, but told nothing about this gifted artist's work other than the perfectly manifest fact that its overriding theme is women and children.
Next, we were hurried through an alcove filled with wonderfully crafted African ritual objects. Again, we remained unenlightened. After a perfunctory discussion of the emblems adorning one single glass-encased exemplar - a figure framed by a moon, and thus identified as a woman - our docent assigned a project. She gave the youngsters pencils and paper and told them to draw pictures of themselves, using a "language of symbols" - any symbols they liked - to say something about themselves.
What, I wondered, did this exercise in "self-revelation" (that is how our guide referred to it) have to do with the materials, meanings, and purposes of the art surrounding us? And why distract an intelligent and open-minded group of children from looking at the beautiful objects around them?
Educators and museum administrators talk a lot about fostering appreciation for the aesthetic traditions of American minority cultures. Yet they often reveal precious little faith in the power of these traditions to communicate to young people. In general, arts programs directed to children emphasize self-expression far more than cultural enrichment. This is sad, for too much concentration on the "inner eye" may eventually blind our children to the world outside.
In its recent "Call to Civil Society," the Council on Civil Society, a consortium of scholars dedicated to the preservation and betterment of democratic life, has identified 12 major sources of civic virtue - among them, family, religious institutions, civic organizations, and schools. Included are the arts and arts institutions. The council urges educators and museum administrators to recommit themselves to rigorous arts-education standards. Working from the axiom that "in a pluralistic society, the arts can serve as universal languages, permitting authentic cultural exchanges that penetrate to the core of human feeling," the council observes that "for growing numbers of secularized young people the arts may represent the last real avenue to moral and spiritual elevation."
At a time when our children are exposed to ever-coarser popular entertainment, it is especially important that schools and museums open up young eyes to art. But this means teaching the fundamentals of art as a discipline, not as a therapeutic activity. Children must be taught to appreciate a work of art regardless of its immediate relevance to their personal lives.
Though the school bus was forced to wait for us, I insisted on walking my daughter once again through those rooms she had been rushed through. I wanted her to at least look. For in looking at art we take an important step toward self-transcendence; we enter that sphere of shared aesthetic experience where there is community and mutual understanding.
* Ms. Mack is author of 'The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family' (Simon & Schuster) and the forthcoming 'Kids Culture: The Miseducation of the American Senses.'