Recently, a fellow arts educator and I were discussing how the arts are forever marginalized in schools. Among arts educators, this conversation is very common; we lament how people do not appreciate the importance of arts education, particularly when compared with “core” subjects like reading and math.
These comments reflect a very real and disturbing problem: over the past twenty years we have seen a dramatic defunding of arts education in public schools, fueled in part by the accountability movement and its myopic focus on tested and testable subjects — this at the same time that we are (re)learning how vital the arts are to education and development. In response, millions of dollars are spent every year by organizations like Americans for the Arts to advocate for arts in schools. Research, videos, commercials, policy memos, and more are carefully crafted to showcase the importance and vitality of the arts.
But what if this is off the mark? What if “the arts” don’t need advocacy? After all, private schools — which cater largely to the rich, white, and elite — continue to value and promote the arts, using them as a selling point. And budget cuts for arts in schools have not been spread evenly: a recent NEA study found that young Black and Latino adults interviewed in 2008 were 49% less likely to have had arts education as children than those interviewed in 1982; for Whites the decrease was only 5%.
Maybe its not that we don’t value the arts. Maybe it’s that we don’t value people: specifically children of color, or children from lower-income neighborhoods. To cut the arts in public schools, while maintaining arts in private schools, is not to say that we don’t see the value of art. It is to say that certain (read: poor, brown) young people don’t need the arts, or don’t deserve them.
These disparities have been pointed out before. But we don’t usually take the next step and ask if our strategies for promoting arts education are moving us in the right direction. If the problem is not the marginalization of arts, but the marginalization of poor students and students of color, then that should be where we put our energy. Instead of engaging with the surface conversation, we need to dig into the subtext. That would mean joining fight for racial and economic justice writ large. This may be personally challenging, because it means seeing our goal of increased arts education in schools as only one of a set of interlocking goals. But after all, arts educators and students have much to offer these justice movements: our creativity, our imagination, and our art.