The Blog

Part I - Why Arts Education is a Matter of Social Justice and Why it will Save the World

Inspired by countless examples of the vital importance of the arts in shaping young lives, I have made my way into rooms with some of the country's foremost arts educators and arts education advocates.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

"Don't hold us in suspense!" After I published my first Huffington Post piece, "President Obama's Arts," on October 21, 2008, readers wanted to know what had happened to Mordecai Santiago - the ten-year-old boy from the Hell's Kitchen projects who had a great talent for the piano, but no resources with which to pursue it. I'd deliberately left my audience uncertain of his destiny, implying that he might turn out to be "a great artist or a great criminal." Now, I would like to set the record straight. Thanks to a marvelous public arts education and not-for-profit arts program, Mordecai is evolving into the former.

According to an email from the Education Director at the 52nd Street Project, the New York City after-school program where Mordecai and I met in 2003:

He loves his high school LOMA [Lower Manhattan Arts Academy], which is a performing arts HS [sic]. He's in the ninth grade and has brought up his grades immensely. He just got hired to be in a small theater production -- off-off Broadway! AND he was the first kid to be hired by the [52nd Street] Project in its new Teen Employment program.

Yet further evidence that arts education saves lives - that is, school-based instructional studies in the arts delivered via certified arts educators, visiting artists, and arts after-school programs. All three of those elements must be in play for the child to receive a complete arts education which, coupled with the humanities and sciences, constitutes a well-rounded, balanced overall education. Just ask any private school student. Do they run the risk of not learning and engaging in the arts from highly qualified, in-school arts teachers, working artists visiting their schools, and out-of-school, specialized arts teachers? Do they have to choose between arts, sciences and humanities? Do they run the risk of never seeing an art exhibit or attending a musical or theatrical performance? In Washington, D.C., museums are free. Shouldn't it be that way all over the country? If we required the children of our nation's political titans to go to public school, might public school programs, including the arts, suddenly improve?

Not just individual arts, but arts-integrated learning, which uses the arts as an entry point to other core subjects, can prove highly effective in engaging students in seemingly less glamorous academic areas. For example, when we rapped Mordecai's reading homework, he finished it. When another student at the 52nd Street Project rapped her times tables, she was able to retain them. Visual arts, creative writing and theatrical role play projects can help kids get excited about history reports, book reports, science projects, and so on. And, as Wynton Marsalis illustrated in the profound, jazz-infused, spoken-word odyssey The Ballad of the American Arts - which he delivered at the Kennedy Center as part of the March 31st Arts Advocacy Day celebrations - we must teach our children about their cultural legacy.

I'm realizing that a great part of my life's quest is to help ensure every American child the kind of opportunity that kids like Mordecai have received. Often, I feel like Sherlock Holmes, following one clue to the next, as I piece together a master picture of what options exist nationally for us to deliver a top-quality arts education to all of our children, even in lean times. In order to do that, we must convince the powers-that-be that arts education is not a luxury reserved for fat times, but a necessity that will ultimately help us thrive as a culture, as a community, as a competitor in the global marketplace and as a leading collaborator in the stewardship of our world. Or, as I said earlier, simply that art saves lives.

It has saved mine more than once. When I was an overly analytical teenager deconstructing life to its molecules and feeling as though everything were meaningless, it was Hamlet's "quintessence of dust speech" that made me know I wasn't alone. What's more, if Shakespeare could assemble blots of ink, insignificant in and of themselves, to create an exalted whole holding universal truths, couldn't there be a great Shakespeare of the cosmos assembling molecules in much the same way?

Or take a friend of mine who attended a Minneapolis magnet school with a very strong arts track, which allowed him to enjoy school, even though he struggled with other academic subjects. He went on to an Ivy League university, winning an Emmy award before he'd even graduated. Meanwhile, his brother, who entered high school when the arts program had been cut, has found himself in and out of trouble with the law and entertaining much slimmer prospects than his elder sibling. Another friend lived in a Cleveland home for boys during his high school years, but due to early cultivation of his acting talent, entered Boston University's conservatory acting program and went on to create roles in award-winning New York plays and major films. A girlfriend of mine, who grew up as one of twelve kids from a poor, immigrant family in the Bronx, found her voice through musical theater. My musician friend, Derrick Ashong - who was born in Ghana, raised between the U.S. and Middle East, went to Harvard, and now speaks internationally on the nexus of art, justice and peace - says:

People often forget that at it's heart, artistry is human communication taken to the highest possible levels. The power in art lies not only in its ability to inspire, but also in its capacity to expand the boundaries and quality of other forms of communication. The truly educated person does not consume art as a mean of diversion from the world but rather as a tool for learning how to better engage it.

When I was growing up in New York City, Joseph Papp's Public Theater used to bus productions around to neighborhoods, set up rafters, marked off by blue Police-Do-Not-Cross barricades, unfold the stage from the back of their truck, and perform Shakespeare for city kids of all stripes. The first play I ever saw, an all black and Latino production of Romeo and Juliet, I experienced in this fashion. The Public also bussed kids to Broadway to see free shows of As You Like It and other Shakespearean classics. It allowed kids of every race and socio-economic background to recognize that Shakespeare was for them, too. This should be standard practice all over the U.S.

Inspired by countless examples of the vital importance of the arts in shaping young lives, I have embarked, with figurative magnifying glass in hand and tweedy cap upon my head, sleuthing my way into rooms with some of the country's foremost arts educators and arts education advocates. In fact, an alternative title to this piece was The Music of Change, due to the inspiring work of Louise Music, who is revolutionizing the educational and political terms with which I pray we as a nation will eventually effect arts education policy.

Like my friend and mentor, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Marshall Ganz, Louise emerges from Cesar Chavez' UFW movement. After her years as an organizer, she became an arts educator and, since 2001, has established herself as Arts Learning Manager for the Alameda County Office of Education in California's Bay Area, where she has managed to create an arts education program, called the Alliance for Arts Learning Leadership (AALL), that could, and I believe should, serve as a potential model for the nation.

In 2006, California had a statewide arts education budget of $6 million. Only $6 million for the entire state of California - perhaps enough for a box of crayons in every classroom. And then that was slashed to $0. Rather than declare AALL defunct, Music re-examined her options and managed to leverage resources from a wide array of stake holders - proving that we can deliver a quality arts education to children even in times of fiscal crisis. Such major players as the Ford Foundation's Knowledge, Creativity and Freedom Division, the Hewlett Foundation, and the United States Department of Education, offered funds.

Meanwhile, employing her organizing background, Ms. Music engaged corporations and philanthropists, politicians and administrators, local community members and businesses, as well as artists, parents, teachers and students in the process of advocating and raising funds for AALL. Today, 18 out of 18 Alameda school districts have effectively implemented AALL's arts education strategies, including struggling districts in inner-city Oakland. From the county level down to the individual school level, Ms. Music has propagated a vocabulary, based on the work of Lois Hetland, from Project Zero, a branch of the Harvard School of Education that focuses solely on studying ways to improve and distribute arts education. AALL employs the terminology of Dr. Hetland's Studio Thinking framework, in order to unify the respective agendas of local education, arts, and arts education communities.

The framework boils down to "8 Studio Habits of Mind." In other words, Dr. Hetland - who, in addition to her work at Project Zero, serves as a professor of Art Education at Massachusetts College of Art - has taken the terminology of the overall American educational community, which aims to cultivate in students productive "habits of mind," and reveals how only the arts can foster intellectual agility in certain ways which can then be applied to any arena of learners' lives - artistic or otherwise. The 8 Studio Habits of Mind are:

1. Develop Craft
2. Engage and Persist
3. Envision
4. Express
5. Observe
6. Reflect
7. Stretch and Explore
8. Understand the Art World [or understand community]

(Courtesy of Lois Hetland/Winner Research Team, copyright 2003 President and Fellows of
Harvard College on behalf of Project Zero)

Arts educators cultivate these Studio Habits of Mind via "3 Studio Structures":

1. Demonstration-Lecture
2. Students at Work
3. Critique

(Lois Hetland/Winner Research Team, copyright 2003 President and Fellows of
Harvard College on behalf of Project Zero)

In the past, the arts and arts education communities have undertaken the Sisyphean task of convincing mainstream society why it should support the arts for art's sake. There has been very little in the way of objective assessment standards for arts learning. And without clear standards and tangible means of assessing student achievement, educational projects receive no funding. As a working artist, I want to believe that art speaks for itself. However, for those who don't think like me, the 8 Studio Habits of Mind clearly demonstrate that the arts contribute directly to making students smarter, a la Lauren Resnick - the eminent education pioneer who postulates that smartness can be taught. The arts help teach kids how to be smart and, what's more, how to love learning - a love unmistakably exhibited in the student works hanging from walls, leaping and singing out of performance halls, during the month of March, Alameda County's "Art IS Education Month."

Nearly every day in the news, we hear two very creative and integrative thinkers, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, discuss not just standards but the vital importance of "21st-Century Skills." In other words, in order for them one day to participate as world leaders and global citizens, children must develop a capacity for independent thinking and creative problem solving. Nothing fosters such skills better than the arts.

I will publish PART II of this article next week.

Before You Go

Popular in the Community