Art Expert: The Problem With School Art Programs Are Teachers Who "Can Barely Draw"
David C. Levy, art historian, musician, educator and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Design in Washington D.C., is my guest today.
By David C. Levy
Hand wringing among the enlightened has been a fairly standard response to the widespread practice of cutting the arts first – especially the visual arts -- when school budgets start crunching.
The arts community usually counters this ritual by references to data that show the positive effect of arts instruction on learning in “core” academic subjects. Though intellectually sound, this tactic has been sadly ineffective. It is also unfortunate that in order to make their case, arts advocates have found it necessary to piggyback on English or math rather than come right out with the plain fact that the arts are critically important to a civilized society.
Many believe that the repeated bloodletting of arts curricula in our schools is a reflection of community values in which the arts rank very poorly; perhaps a legacy from our iconoclastic 17th century forebears as well as the outcome of general disbelief in the arts’ relevance to intellectual and academic growth.
I would argue, however, that there is another reason why the arts, and visual arts in particular, are an endangered species in American K – 12 education.
It has been my observation that primary and secondary school art teachers rank very low on the continuum of professional respect among their peers.
And I would posit as a significant cause that they have generally not achieved a sufficient level of skill in their discipline to deserve that respect. For example, while English teachers may not be able to write The Great American Novel, the chances are pretty good that they can compose a competent essay. But many art teachers can barely draw!
This, however, is really not their fault.
A survey of undergraduate art education curricula leading to teacher certification in the U.S. will show that few exceed 38 credits of studio instruction. In other words, the aggregated exposure to art-making by students in these programs adds up to just a tad more than one year.
What is worse, rather then comprising a progressively developing, skill- and concept-building sequence, this precious learning time is generally fractured into a smorgasbord of classes in unrelated media and disciplines -- presumably so teachers can respond to diverse areas of student interest.
The result is a curriculum shaped by a pastiche of courses; e.g., one in ceramics, another in printmaking, a course or two in drawing, painting or sculpture, digital arts, etc. So the majority of K-12 art teachers graduate without rigorous training in the fundamental skills that underpin competence in their discipline.
They haven’t been taught to draw, they barely understand the nuances of spatial organization, color or design, and their ability to produce a professional or even semi-professional art product is de minimis.
Compare this to music education. Would we take a program seriously that proposed to transform 18-year-olds, with only a rudimentary exposure to music, into music teachers after a year and a half of instruction in which each class was devoted to a different instrument?
The answer, of course, is a resounding “no!” We would think such an approach absurd.
But since this is, in fact, the way we prepare our art teachers, why should the educational community value their contribution, when it has so little potential to bring excellence to the table (notwithstanding that, amazingly and as the studies show, the exposure itself appears to have salutary consequences for the academic curriculum)?
How has this come about? How has a profession that was valued and whose skills were rigorously taught by western cultures and their educational systems for centuries fallen to such low regard?
I believe that much of the answer lies in the fact that since the early 20th century K -12 visual arts education in the U.S. and to some degree globally, has been based on fundamentally misguided principles.
The most saliently destructive of these is the belief that art classes for pre-pubescent children should emphasize the nurturing of “creativity and self expression” at the expense of competence. This is reinforced by the erroneous notion that skill development, especially in pre-adolescent kids, is at best irrelevant and at worst, an inhibitor to children’s creative self-expression.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Young kids before the age of puberty and its accompanying onset of adolescent self-consciousness are instinctively, often irrepressibly, creative.
What they need in their art classes is a foundation of skill building to make the fullest expression of those creative instincts possible.
As they become adolescents, much of the ingenuousness that underlay their earlier creative spontaneity will automatically disappear; but good art-making skills will stay with them for life and, for some, the creativity will resurface. At this point it should be enhanced by the existence of the technical skills to actualize its full potential.
Consider that we don’t teach elementary school children creative writing; we teach them reading, spelling and basic syntax. The visual arts have equivalent fundamentals but we are not bringing them into the classroom.
Again, look at music. Kids start playing an instrument early in life and steadily develop their physical, technical and perceptual musical strengths as they grow into adulthood. In the visual arts the physical requirements are somewhat different, but in general they are more similar then not, and the perceptual issues of eye training and visual judgment are corollaries for hearing, understanding structure and interpreting music.
Therefore, it is just as absurd to suggest that a competent art teacher can be produced through only a year-and-a-half of hands-on study in a peripatetic curriculum as it is to assert that music teachers can be produced in a program that sets out to teach them five or six instruments in that same period of time. [Author] Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule may not fully apply here, but it is certainly food for thought.
The argument might be made that like young musicians, serious art students enter college after many years of skill building. Unfortunately, this is not true!
Most students entering college art departments or even professional art schools bring little more than their elementary and high school art classes as background preparation. And, as we have seen, skill development is often sadly lacking in these settings. (How could it be otherwise, when the majority of their teachers have so few skills of their own to teach?)
By contrast, the serious music student has probably had ten or more years of private study with a competent professional as well as participation in advanced school music programs, community orchestras and the like, where technical skills, musical sophistication and competition are the sine qua non. Think about the criteria for participation in All State bands or the demanding meritocracy that determines admission to the elite musical ensembles in a large suburban high school. These have no visual arts equivalents.
A revealing comparison is that students entering good music conservatories quickly embark on the development of a professional repertoire, music theory and advanced technique. By contrast, even in the most selective of art schools the freshman year (or as it is often called, the “Foundation Year”) is essentially remedial. It does exactly what its name implies – lays down a visual arts foundation that should have been built years before.
One might hope that even if the elementary schools are not doing their job, an interested and/or talented student would have an opportunity to develop visual skills at the high school level.
To a limited degree this is true, especially in well-off suburban communities or urban magnet schools and there are other exceptions.
But by and large, even in schools where the art departments have not been slashed and burned by successive budget cuts, the teachers themselves simply do not have sufficient training to understand and foster the skills their students need.
Again a music analogy: Most people can tell in a heartbeat whether or not a kid can play an instrument at a basic level of competence. Since the days of Jack Benny the sound of a scratchy violin or caterwauling saxophone practiced in the bedroom has been the stuff of a thousand sit-coms.
By contrast, most laymen are incapable of telling good drawing from bad, have little sense of composition or design and, in fact, don’t much care. Extrapolated to teachers whose actual exposure to studio arts has consisted of 38 or fewer credits spread across multiple and unrelated art disciplines, it is simply unreasonable to expect them to be able to recognize technical deficiencies or needs, much less correct them. If you can’t see it, you can fix it. And worse, if you can see it but don’t know how to do it, you can’t guide a student effectively towards solving visual problems.
It is hard to say just where to go from here. Certainly there is no quick fix. Given the entrenchment of college and university art education faculties with a vested interest in the status quo, coupled with the myopic licensing requirements for art teachers in most states, the possibility of reform at the college level is remote.
Yet this is the sine qua non for the solution. And even if reform were miraculously to occur overnight, the education of a new breed of art teachers and their gradual infiltration into schools that are already resistant to the arts, particularly the visual arts would be a painfully slow process.
Regrettably, I have no answers. This is a gloomy picture and is likely to remain so. The miracle is that even without the enlightened interest and support of the educational community or the mainstream American public we continue to produce talented, skilled and creative visual artists.
Their success in this challenging cultural environment is a ray of bright light -- a tribute to their force of will and indomitable spirit. It is an achievement well worth celebration and support.
But just as literature is meaningless in a society of illiterates, artists can only expect a capricious and non-critical audience in a culture whose educational system places no value on the teaching of their craft.
David C. Levy is president of the Cambridge Information Group’s Education division. He is the former president and director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington’s largest private cultural institution) and its College of Art and Design. As chancellor of New School University, he founded the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He was also director of Parsons School of Design, founder of the Delaware College of Art and Design in Wilmington, and is now a principal in Bach to Rock music schools.
| October 13, 2009; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: Arts Education, Guest Bloggers | Tags: art teachers, teach training
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