The Precarious Status of the Arts
At the time I took a post at the National Endowment for the Arts in Summer 2003, with a teaching leave granted to me by Emory University, arts educators in the United States were anxious. I realized that within a month after my arrival, when I was assigned to research and education projects. The Endowment was (and still is) an important source of funding and affirmation for in-school and after-school programs, as well as for education initiatives run by large and small museums and performance companies throughout the land, and leaders and advocates often brought us their concerns. It was our job to listen and try to help.
The immediate problem that year was a major piece of legislation that had been passed by Congress in 2001 and was signed by the president in January 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act, which was hailed as a landmark in Federal support of education. But it had a drawback for the Endowment community: it didn’t foreground the arts. The bill had bipartisan support, President Bush managing to bring Senator Edward Kennedy on board and secure Senate passage by a vote of 87-10 (the House voted 381-41), not, however, because of its curricular breadth.
No Child Left Behind poured piles of Federal funding into primary and secondary schools, but asked schools to show results mainly in two areas, the core subjects reading and math. In fact, it heightened the “accountability” outlook that had come to prevail ever since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 by promising to punish schools that didn’t produce “Adequate Yearly Progress” in those core subjects. Test scores would be the crucial measure.
Naturally, school administrators would adjust resources accordingly, labor and money leaving subjects that would not be tested and going to those that would. So the arts educators warned. Reading instruction would go up, music and theater down. As we know, the principle that what gets tested is what gets taught generally holds true, and with everyone now focused even more squarely on scores, the principle would tighten. The maintenance of arts programs would depend upon the personal interest and commitment of school administrators, a group not typically oriented toward the creative fields, and now those figures had a clear incentive not to pursue them. If reading and math tests were coming at the end of May, and if principals and district officials would themselves take the heat if scores were disappointing, what would they prefer to do with some afterschool funds that came their way, back a jazz club and theater group or add reading and math tutoring for low-performing kids?
This was the prevailing outlook among arts educators and advocates at the time. I spent many hours at something called the Arts Education Partnership, and even kept an office there for a year in their headquarters across the street from Union Station (the Arts Endowment was then located in the Old Post Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, later sold by the Federal government and became the Trump Hotel; at the present time, the plaza outside Union Station has become a homeless camp). The Partnership was a network of arts educators and organizations that issued research reports and hosted quarterly meetings across the country, serving as a clearinghouse of fresh information on successful programs and best practices, funding streams and political climates (relative to arts education), and who was doing what and where.
Director Dick Deasy was a remarkable impresario, gentlemanly and energetic, masterful at making the Partnership a go-to place for anyone eager to participate in the field, whether they be academics, researchers, heads of education programming at major arts institutions, or public officials (for instance, people in charge of education at state arts agencies). If you attended the meetings and listened well, as I did—they were the experts, I was a novice from an English department in a wealthy private university in Atlanta, I kept quiet—you knew exactly what was going on in those scattered places, the worries and the plans, and the money, too. You heard talk of certain foundations gearing grants to arts programs, how to lobby politicians for better budgets, grading by portfolio and performance, research studies showing the impact of the arts on school culture and individual achievement, and so on. (The Partnership issued several reports of its own over the years, such as Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning in 1999 and Critical Links: Learning in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development in 2002.) One could divine, too, an outlook among the attendees, a theory of education, a set of assumptions about kids and the place of the arts in their lives, and what artworks were the best ones for them to study.
There was urgency in the air that year. Arts educators felt they had to vindicate the arts to a degree they never had to before. The more the nation focused on tests, the less the arts would seem to matter. I called a prominent education journalist around that time and asked him straight up where the arts stood in his reporting. “They don’t,” he answered, and proceeded to explain that if he couldn’t hang a story on a test score or some other quantifiable outcome, it wasn’t a story. People were starting to talk about “college readiness,” too, which would become a guiding concept in Common Core at the end of the decade, and college readiness emphasized reading and math just as much as No Child Left Behind did, not dance and sculpture.
The main yardstick of college readiness, the ACT exam, was verbal and quantitative/scientific, not visual and musical. With the Bush Administration telling every high-schooler that he should go to college, that paychecks would be bigger and life better if one had a degree in hand (the Obama Administration pushed this line even more strongly), the arts were sinking, lost in the flood of “achievement” advice and non-artistic measures of learning. Of course, the skill of reading would include reading of the fine art of fiction and verse, but here, too, the aesthetic side diminished as reading tests leaned more toward passages of “informational text.” The 2009 NAEP Reading Framework recommended that passages on the exam for 12th-graders be fully 70 percent informational, only 30 percent literary. Furthermore, by “literary,” the Framework meant poetry and fiction, and also literary nonfiction, the latter category including essays, speeches, biographies, and memoirs. That would put poetry at, perhaps, five percent of the total reading passages, a negligible amount in the eyes of a teacher looking ahead to the exams her students would take, their scores being a measure of her performance as much as theirs.
Saving the Arts
To counter this instrumentalizing, anti-arts trend, the educators said, Endowment Chairman Dana Gioia would have to use his bully pulpit to push the arts on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and to the American public. They wanted him to take the available arguments and evidence for the arts, put them in persuasive form, broadcast them in public appearances, and hand them to Congressional staffers (the White House was already on board, particularly Laura Bush, and funding for the agency rose steadily). He, too, had to be an advocate, one with special access. Gioia agreed.
It was at this point, however, that a rift appeared between the outlook of a few of us at the Arts Endowment (Gioia, myself, education director David Steiner, and some others) and that of much of the Arts Education Partnership world. Everyone recognized that the status of the arts in the school day was in jeopardy. Nobody argued about that. We agreed, too, that the crisis long preceded No Child Left Behind, which had only aggravated a continuing trend. In 1988, in fact, the Endowment had issued a paper entitled Toward Civilization: A Report on Arts Education, which surveyed the schools and concluded, “The problem is: basic arts education does not exist in the United States” (p. 13, emphasis in original). Too true, yes, everyone nodded. But in the restoration of arts education in the lives of the young, what forms should it have, what pedagogy? That was where differences emerged.
The conflict was summarized perfectly in a statement made one day by someone at a Partnership discussion that I attended. As ten of us sat around a table and reviewed some recent research findings, one person made a sententious remark about teaching that he’d heard long before and that had remained with him as a favorite maxim. It went something like this: “I don’t teach a subject—I teach kids.” That was it, nothing more, a bare assertion with a gnomic force. He smiled and leaned back, satisfied that he’d said all that needed to be said in those eight words.
I had to pause. There was a whole worldview in that little assertion. It went way beyond a lesson plan or classroom strategy, and I confess that it took me awhile to understand it, to think it through. It sounded so foreign to me that I had to slow down, let it settle, entertain it as a theory, a hypothesis, an ethical position, a dogma. Obviously, it meant very much to the one who uttered it, and I could tell that the others in the room liked it. They seemed to comprehend something that I didn’t. “I teach kids, not a subject”—strange, and strangely pleasing to them. Such a distinction didn’t make sense to me, but it certainly made sense to them.
“I teach kids”—what does that mean? I rolled it around in my head and couldn’t answer, not until I found a context. It was a slogan whose actual words in their dictionary meanings couldn’t account for the significance or power that it seemed to possess as it was uttered. It had more of a declarative import, with a little emotional undercurrent. I could hear some defensiveness in the words, as if one had to protect students from teachers who concentrated so much on the content of their instruction that they neglected the tender minds right in front of them. That was the key. A-ha. Just translate “kids vs. subject” into concrete, practical terms. Some people emphasize the materials of their discipline, Mozart and Monet and Millay, others the real lives in the room, the 10-year-old boys and girls looking for edification and fun, and we know which is the better practice. We don’t even have to explain. That was the real point. I just had to plug this slogan into the old child-centered approach, which I had assumed had been discredited long before, but survived in this room in pithy expression.
Okay, got it. Don’t be obtuse, I told myself. My academic training threw me into literary objects and critical theories through six years of graduate school, where I picked through the words of “Song of Myself” and the ideas in Of Grammatology like an archaeologist at an ancient dig combing the soil for signs of civilization, but none of that applied here. Think of the kids! The smile on the Mona Lisa is sublime and captivating, but how much more so are the smiles of the 5th-graders staring at it as the teacher puts the image up on the screen. Once I pinned it down, the approach explained much of the discourse of the advocates in my years in the Federal government. It was an abiding assumption. The emphasis on kids-over-content popped up in one way or another over and over again in the meetings and discussions and panels I witnessed. We had a dividing line between those people most interested in actual art objects and those most interested in real human beings, and nearly everybody fell on the latter side.
That’s a stark division, obviously, and I would stress the word most, a relative preference, not objects vs. students, an either/or. Those of us on the object side wouldn’t have said we don’t care about kids, nor would the arts ed advocates have said that they don’t care about Death of a Salesman and Kind of Blue. But divergent emphases can produce widely contrasting practices. Here is one example. As Gioia took on the role of arts education champion, he crafted new programs to revive arts education that fully answered the advocates’ call. One of them was Shakespeare in American Communities, a massive initiative supported in good part by private funding that brought the Bard into high school and middle school classrooms all across America. The Arts Endowment paid notable theater companies to send actors into those schools, assembled teaching materials for thousands of theater instructors, and sponsored local performances. Everybody liked it, though the exclusive attention to Shakespeare struck a few people as a little stuffy and Eurocentric. I recall an anchor on PBS NewsHour interviewing Gioia on air and offering the criticism that Shakespeare was a little “safe,” implying that the Endowment should, perhaps, have gone for a more edgy author or two. Gioia answered a perfectly with a mild retort about “safe” being one of the last words he would use to describe Shakespeare (one had to wonder if the host had ever listened to Regan and Goneril, Richard III, or Iago speak).
That’s not the example I have in mind, however. I mention it in order to put Gioia in the “art-object” camp. In the long days of barnstorming and stump-speaking for arts education, he put the creations at the center, not the kids. It was Hamlet and the ghost that mattered, Lady Macbeth and Shylock. The same focus on artworks shaped another national program, Poetry Out Loud, which for an illuminating moment sparked a small dissent along these very kids-first lines among arts advocates as we rolled it out.
Poetry Out Loud was conceived in response to a large national survey conducted by the Endowment in 1982, 1992, and 2002, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, whose last iteration showed, among other things, an astonishing drop in the reading of literature (fiction, poetry, drama) by 18-24-year-olds. (The Survey has continued; here is the last report.) In 1982, 60 percent of that age group read at least one poem, novel, short story, or play in the preceding 12 months in leisure time (not for work or school). We didn’t get any more specific in our questionnaire—any literary work of any length or quality would count. In 2002, the rate dropped to 43 percent, an astonishing decline for such a longstanding activity. (Gioia had the research office—where I was assigned—issue a separate report on the reading component entitled Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.)
Gioia took the finding as a mandate. The Endowment would have to design some programs to reverse the slide. Poetry Out Loud was one of them. It followed the model of the National Spelling Bee, a competition with kids on stage and judges before them. Here, instead of spelling impossible words, kids would take the spotlight and recite poems, the judges marking their voice, posture, accuracy, character, pacing, etc. Winners and runners-up would be chosen, with cash awards to go with the honors. Contestants would be selected though local competitions at the high school, district, and state levels, then a national final in Washington, DC, or some other major city. State level arts agencies would help with the early stages of selection. Gioia added an important provision to the plan: all poems recited by the kids would come from a list the Endowment had created.
That’s where some rumbling came to be heard and the conflict of object vs. kids surfaced once more. As the planning stages were almost complete, before any actual competitions began, we heard of objections raised in some of the state arts councils to the design of the program. Gioia’s list of poems were well-known efforts by well-known writers from Shakespeare to Gwendolyn Brooks. You could find the choices in standard anthologies in literature survey courses in college. That was a problem, some said. Why make students memorize someone else’s expressions and vocalize them? Kids should have the freedom to compose their own verses and recite them to the audience and judges. That would be a more authentic, more meaningful exercise. It’s the kids that matter, their thoughts and feelings, their experience, not some guy in a faraway land from 300 years before.
When Gioia heard of the criticism, he shrugged and said, “No.” While he didn’t oppose kids writing their own poems, that activity lay outside the scope of the program. It wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t last, we moved on. But I recognized the kids-first premise at work once more, which in this case missed the whole point of the initiative. Gioia wanted to get kids to read more poetry, to dive into it. He believed that a student who memorized a short poem by Frost or Dickinson had performed a mighty engagement, one that strengthened memory (think of memory as a muscle—the more you use it, the stronger it gets), broadened vocabulary, improved public speaking, and got an adolescent out of his own seething head and into another’s (a very healthy exercise for a 16-year-old). It also acquainted that youth with a little marvel of civilization, a piece of something much better than the youth culture and peer pressure pouring through their screens. That small corpus of poems was good for them, much better for their education than their own efforts at composition.
If the kids-first believers expected that having to do Tennyson or Julia Alvarez instead of their own creations would discourage the high-schoolers, they were flat wrong. I attended a final competition in the following years, this one at the Folger Library in DC, and it was electric. Contestants took the stage one by one, each time a hush settling in the auditorium as she prepared to speak. The kids were dramatic and intense and lyrical, the audience tense and mesmerized. The distance of themselves and their lives from the poets and poems they had picked didn’t curb their enthusiasm one bit. If you’ve watched the National Spelling Bee, you know how climactic it gets. The same thing happened here. Who would win? Who was best? Who affected us the most? The competition factor lifted the temperature. The kids were intent, we were expectant. The prospect of one winner, not everyone’s-a-winner, raised the stakes and heightened their performance. To watch a junior from Ohio in 2007 voice the words of a mid-17th-century English divine whose verse stood high over the centuries made her achievement even more impressive. She now had John Donne in her bones, forever.
I bring that example up to show how this distinction kids vs. artworks can play out in actual practice. What sounds like an abstract or theoretical premise has concrete implications that can reach quite far into the things selected for class and what teachers proceed to do with them. In Poetry Out Loud, kids recited traditional or contemporary classics as opposed to their own novice compositions, a difference as wide at the Grand Canyon. The little axiom voiced at the Arts Education Partnership that previous day was, in fact, a condensation of the most broad-ranging beliefs about education and the passing of the generations—and it still is. A whole conception of education, of the purpose of the teacher, the intellectual and emotional condition of teens, the value of the past, the state of modernity and progress . . . they follow from where you stand on the kids/artwork spectrum. Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say that those Big Truths determine what you choose to stress in the classroom, the experience of the kids or the features and meanings of the artwork. Your classroom practice on this matter tells us what you think about bigger matters.
The Current Situation
Now, in 2022, as classical education teachers strive to enhance the arts in their respective school curricula, they must remain wary of this kids-first orientation. The costs of it may be quickly measured by what those four hundred thousand kids who participated in the Arts Endowment’s poetry program in those first few years would not have gotten if the competitions allowed them to deliver their own stuff, not that of the greats. The contestants would have exercised their own language and feelings and experiences, which they could just as well do at one of the many poetry slams that were popping up around that time, or on videos they could create on MySpace, which started in August 2003.
The Poetry Out Loud model introduced students to something few could undergo otherwise, a deep absorption of the best that has been thought and said. If kids-first educators saw these adolescents as they finished their performance and strode to the wings as the crowd applauded and cheered, they would realize the pride and joy that internalizing the words of a literary giant gave them. (Several examples may be found on Youtube.) I regard this process as one of the highest duties of a teacher.
Nonetheless, the kids-first approach is still quite firm in the arts education world. You can see that in a resource that many people building an arts curriculum in their schools might consult—with unfortunate results. It’s a large project called the National Core Arts Standards, sponsored by something called the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. The project started after another massive education initiative that played up reading and math but not the arts, the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, which were established in 2010. (Disclosure: I worked on Common Core on the literary reading strand. My regrets afterwards came out in this report I did with Sandra Stotsky.) The Coalition was formed in the wake of Common Core, and it brought together a daunting roster of leading organizations in all the arts fields such as National Dance Education Organization and American Alliance for Theatre and Education. Support came from the College Board, the Kennedy Center, and the Arts Education Partnership, too, among many others. The Coalition then drafted groups of academics, researchers, advocates, officials, and teachers to craft grade-by-grade standards in each major field.
The result came out in 2014. It is exactly what you get when you fasten so closely on the young individuals learning about the arts and you downplay specific artworks themselves. The “Conceptual Framework” document states right up front and quite clearly that knowledge of particular artworks plays no substantive role in the model. The main learning goal for the students is “artistic literacy,” and here is how the designers define it:
. . . these new, voluntary National Core Arts Standards are framed by a definition of artistic literacy that includes philosophical foundations and lifelong goals, artistic processes and creative practices, anchor and performance standards that students should attain, and model cornerstone assessments by which they can be measured.
Artistic literacy doesn’t mean familiarity with great symphonies and tragedies and fountains. Nothing here on tradition, on the development of genres over time and through important movements such as Impressionism, or why Michelangelo was so masterful. Instead, we have “goals” and “processes” and “practices.” (I cannot figure out what “philosophical foundations” signifies; the document doesn’t clarify, and there is nothing specific about philosophies of art in the standards.) Later, we read that the standards “emphasize the process-oriented nature of the arts” (6). Lots of talk about problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, collaboration, and 21st-century skills, too. A chart on page 10 of the Conceptual Framework document lays out “overarching common values and expectations for learning,” which are:
- The Arts as Communication
- The Arts as Creative Personal Realization
- The Arts as Culture, History, and Connectors
- The Arts as Means to Well-Being
- The Arts as Community Engagement
As you can see, the second and fourth items apply to individuals, to students who will find the arts “a source of lifelong satisfaction,” their “well-being” built upon their “participation” in the arts as “creators, performers, and . . . responders.” The first and fifth items apply to society at large, whereby the arts facilitate “communication” of “life experiences” in powerful ways and foster “an enjoyable, inclusive environment.”
Only the third item, on culture and history, leads to the arts themselves, the legacy of master works. But the elaboration of that category is fatally vague. It reads,
Artistically literate citizens know and understand artwork from varied historical periods and cultures, and actively seek and appreciate diverse forms and genres of artwork of enduring quality/significance. They also seek to understand relationships among the arts, and cultivate habits of searching for and identifying patterns and relationships between the arts and other knowledge.
To be sure, one way to interpret that first sentence is as a heavy burden of art-historical study. A curriculum based upon it would survey historical periods and present their highest achievements. Teachers would then test students on their knowledge of those representative masterpieces. Standards aligned with that learning goal would ensure that students be exposed to different historical eras, not necessarily identifying a set canon of works, but sufficiently pushing teachers and students toward the past and its best creations.
That’s not what happens in the Core Standards, though. If art-historical knowledge shows up anywhere in the actual standards, it will be under Anchor Standard #11, “Relate artistic ideas and works with society, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.” It is true that other Anchor Standards ask students to focus on specific works, such as #7, “Perceive and analyze artistic work.” But the guidance that follows that standard is too general to do more than signify the activity of perceiving and analyzing, not the thing perceived and analyzed. For example, a high school student reaches proficiency on #7 in the dance strand by doing this:
Analyze the use of elements of dance in a variety of genres, styles, or cultural movement practices within its cultural context to communicate intent. Use genre-specific dance terminology.
As you can see, the goal is a skill, a doing. Most any dance object may serve, as the gigantic category “cultural movement practice” suggests. The historical component is gone. We have to conclude that the designers of the standards have done this deliberately in order to maintain attention to the kids and not to indicate a corpus or canon of dances over the centuries that one must study.
Anchor Standard #11, however, with its explicit turn to historical context, would seem to do the opposite. It draws teachers away from student experience and into a more or less distant past. If we were to follow out the implications of the wording, the object would come forth as a representation of another time and place, and that would require some close analysis of the object and scholarly investigation of the moment of its creation. We would move toward a knowledge that is indifferent to the make-up of the students in the room.
Unfortunately, the actual learning goal tied to this standard reduces the historical-knowledge factor to negligible size. High school proficiency is reached by this task:
Analyze and discuss dances from selected genres or styles and/or historical time periods, and formulate reasons for the similarities and differences between them in relation to the ideas and perspectives of the peoples from which the dances originate.
Note carefully the “or” in that sentence. It tells teachers that they may require art-historical knowledge—or, they may not. One can meet this standard with samples of ‘80s breakdancing and ‘70s Latina dancing. A student might never encounter a dance more than 50 years old. The syllabus could be all contemporary, with none of the materials laying claim to greatness, so long as the acts of analyzing and discussing are completed. The latitude of choice has a far-reaching subtext: the objects you choose to study aren’t that important. Teachers feel no duty to plant a historical sense of things into students’ heads, no lineages or heritages or traditions to pass along, only the capacity of critical thinking.
Anchor Standard #11 for theater does a little better job, but still falls well short. We have this:
Compare the drama/theatre conventions of a given time period with those of the present . . .
Investigate the time period and place of a drama/theatre work to better understand performance and design choices.
Those goals sound, once again, like a heavy burden of knowledge, but they won’t play out in the classroom that way. The first is a standard for 4th Graders, the second for 6th Graders, neither of whom have the intellectual equipment to engage in meaningful study of ancient and modern conventions and time periods and places. A wise teacher will give those students a mere taste of such things so that they will have a little familiarity with them as deeper art-historical study happens in later grades. Unfortunately, the high school-level standard that would reinforce the burden of knowledge never appears. Instead, we have a learning goal that is just as hollow as the one for dance above. It reads:
Use basic theatre research methods to better understand the social and cultural background of a drama/theatre work.
This is too abstract, too open. A teacher might choose a 21st-century work as easily as Shakespeare or Ibsen. There isn’t even any criterion of excellence, either, just “a drama/theater work.” The indifference of the standards will produce an indifference in the students, a relativistic attitude toward the art form that is the opposite of inspiring. The past comes off to them as more or less meaningless.
What To Do
As classical educators seek to boost the arts in their schools, then, they must avoid unsuccessful models, no matter how much authority and expertise those models claim. The Coalition assembled a daunting network, to be sure, but it adopted the wrong premises. There is an alternative for classical educators to consult, an older arts standards project from 1994 that is ready for consultation. It came about as the four national arts education groups (visual art, music, theatre, dance) saw the standards/accountability movement pressing ahead in the 1980s and wanted to demonstrate the same rigor in their own fields. A grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the Arts Endowment, and the NEH supported the project, an advisory committee that included Senator Thad Cochran, Albert Shanker of American Federation of Teachers, and representatives from the Getty Center, Julliard, and Kennedy Center, and many other academics and teachers and officials was formed. The result was National Standards for Arts Education: What Every American Should Know and Be Able to Do in the Arts, the title alone signaling the value of arts knowledge.
The opening statement in the Preface highlights “creative works and the process of producing them” and also the “entire human intellectual and culture heritage.” We have a nice balance of art production and art history. Kids will create art and they will also study its best examples from the past. The theatre strand asks students to write scripts and act and master techniques of lighting, sound, costume, and scenery. It also has them “analyze a variety of dramatic texts from cultural and historical perspectives to determine production requirements.” That is, there is a knowledge angle to those techniques. It suggests that students will have to learn about, for instance, the physical nature of performance spaces in former times in order to mount their own productions of old plays skillfully. The phrase “a variety of dramatic texts” is vague, to be sure, but as we move to advanced levels, we come upon this specification:
. . . critique several dramatic works in terms of other aesthetic philosophies (such as the underlying ethos of Greek drama, French classicism with its unities of time and place, Shakespeare and romantic forms, India classical drama, Japanese kabuki, and others) . . .
The identification of actual names and eras is crucial. It affirms the art-historical spirit of the whole package. A few lines further, students are asked to “identify cultural and historical sources of American theatre and musical theatre.” A similar duty appears in the music strand: “identify sources of American music genres, trace the evolution of those genres, and cite well-known musicians associated with them.” The compilation of “well-known musicians” comes close to being an exercise in canon formation, which is all to the good. At the most advanced level, in fact, the knowledge burden deepens to what we would normally associate with college work:
. . . identify and describe music genres or styles that show the influence of two or more cultural traditions, identify the cultural source of each influence, and trace the historical conditions that produced the synthesis of influences . . .
That requirement alone demonstrates the superiority of these standards from 1994 to the more recent round. I encourage teachers and administrators to use them as they revise and expand their arts offerings.
Still, in spite of the noble efforts of the earlier group, the document they came up with doesn’t go quite far enough. A strong arts curriculum needs something else, that which I’ve hinted at throughout this paper: a list. Every school should have a roster for music, theatre and film, dance, and visual arts that contains names of artists and names of artworks. The list shouldn’t be long, just a core of essential materials, some of them ancient, some modern, varying in content and mood, all qualifying as historic, as masters and masterpieces. Teachers can choose anything else to fill out their syllabi, but the items on the list must be included somehow, so that every student passing through the coursework is exposed to a select group of the same things and have a common experience. It will impress them. They will understand that the past has greatness, that there is a class of superior creations that they have absorbed and that gives them pride.
In this age of phony egalitarianism, the young hunger for profound meanings and deep purposes. They like the idea of the best, the highest, the accomplished and superb and triumphant, as a Friday night at the high school football game proves. They can have it in the arts, too. Focus on the object, and give the students great objects, and I predict that your arts classes will have full enrollments in years to come.
Mark Bauerlein earned his doctorate in English at UCLA in 1988. He has taught at Emory since 1989, with a two-and-a-half year break in 2003-05 to serve as the Director, Office of Research and Analysis, at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Apart from his scholarly work, he publishes in popular periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Bauerlein serves as Senior Editor for First Things.