Arts Education

Educating for Cultural Citizenship

I’m excited to share with you all a new article of mine that has come out in the most recent issue of Curriculum Inquiry, titled Educating for Cultural Citizenship: Reframing the Goals of Arts Education. This post summarizes some of the main ideas in the article which you can find here. If you don’t have access, I’m told the first fifty people to visit this link can download it for free.

What does it mean to be part of a society? What are the responsibilities, roles, and rights of community members? How does one become a “good” citizen? These questions are central to the field of civic education, which prepares individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to be active and responsible participants in civic life. Those of us in the field of arts education, I believe, should be asking similar questions.

Citizenship, after all, is about more than political rights and responsibilities. It is also a matter of culture. You may be formally recognized as a citizen of a country, but still have your cultural perspectives and practices marginalized, leading to second-class citizenship. You may have access to the ballot box but not the right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to “freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” Moreover, artistic and cultural practices — from hip-hop to documentary film to traditional ceremony — have a vital political dimension, and can serve as their own form of civic engagement.

Arts education is about more than transmitting the skills and knowledge needed to create artistic works. It is also a process of developing young people’s orientations towards the arts — teaching them about their roles and responsibilities as artists and/or audience members. Arts education offers an entryway for young people into an important aspect of cultural life. One useful way to think about arts education, then, is as a process of developing cultural citizenship, the the right and capacity of people to develop and pass on diverse cultural traditions and identities while participating effectively in a shared cultural and political arena. Arts educators are helping youth to acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible members of their cultural communities. In other words, arts education is a form of civic education.

As scholars like Westheimer and Kahne have demonstrated, not all civic education efforts share the same vision of what it means to be a good citizen. The same is true for arts education — different types of arts education promote different types of cultural citizenship.

Some arts programs are designed to develop what we might call informed cultural citizens. The informed cultural citizen has the capacity to understand, appreciate, and critique works of art, and is confident in her right to attend museums, plays, concerts, and other artistic fora without feeling alienated or excluded. She is not a passive consumer of whatever media comes her way; she is engaged in choosing, critiquing, and discussing art, thus involving her in the evolution of artistic tastes. Programs promoting informed cultural citizenship can be found in the realms of aesthetic education, arts appreciation, and discipline based arts education, among other places.

Other arts programs are designed to develop participatory cultural citizens. The participatory cultural citizen is involved in producing, remixing, and sharing original artistic works, even if she does not see herself as an artist. She has a strong connection to her own cultural heritage, along with the freedom to explore new forms of expression and to share in cross-cultural exchange. She sees sees the arts as a way to connect with and understand the broader communities of which she is a part. She does not see firm divides between “artist” and “audience,” and is resistant to hierarchies among art forms. The development of participatory cultural citizens has long been a goal, for example, of many educators and artists in the community-based arts movements that have swept the US over the past century.

Still other arts education programs are designed to develop justice-oriented cultural citizens. The justice-oriented cultural citizen can critically analyze the ways that the arts are implicated in processes of oppression and resistance. She actively values and promotes cultural perspectives and narratives that are kept out of mainstream discourse, while maintaining a strong sense of cultural pride and identity. The justice-oriented cultural citizen feels a responsibility to use her art to improve her community and directly confront injustice, while understanding that social change must be a collective effort utilizing multiple forms of cultural and social action. Programs promoting justice-oriented cultural citizenship can be found in the fields of social justice arts education, community-based arts, youth participatory action research, youth media, youth organizing, critical media literacy, hip-hop education, community cultural development, and cultural organizing, among others.

This line of thinking suggests that we as arts educators should begin asking ourselves questions like those with which I began this post. What kinds of cultural citizens are we educating? What are we teaching about who can be an artist, and what the arts are for? How might education in the arts support young people as they seek to be recognized as full citizens? Such questions can help us to be more conscious of our influence on young people as members of overlapping local, national, and international communities, and of the role of arts education in an aspiring democracy.

Remembering Maxine Greene

Today I want to take a moment to toast arts educator, activist, and philosopher Maxine Greene, who passed away last week at the age of 96. For decades, Maxine has been tireless in helping us to understand the transformative potential of arts experiences, whether as a professor at Columbia University; as Philosopher-in-Residence at the Lincoln Center Institute; or as founder of the Maxine Greene Center for Social Imagination, the Arts, and Education. She has left behind numerous books and essays showcasing her inspiring vision of humanization and justice.

Maxine Greene Comic

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello,

Maxine argued that in order to create a more just, humane world we first must develop our poetic and social imaginations. The poetic imagination, according to Greene, is the capacity to see the world through the eyes of another. When we use our poetic imagination we are able not only to appreciate another’s worldview, but also to “enter into that world, to discover how it looks and feels from the vantage point of the person whose world it is.” This empathic practice does not necessarily entail agreeing with another’s perspective. However, it does enable us to “grasp it as a human possibility.”

The social imagination allows us to envision a life different from the one we live, to “look at the world as if it could be otherwise.” It is the human capacity, both creative and moral, to “invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” While not inherently geared toward justice, the social imagination makes positive social change possible because a vision of what might be gives us a perspective from which to critique things as they are. As Greene states, “We acknowledge the harshness of situations only when we have in mind another state of affairs in which things would be better…and it may be only then that we are moved to choose to repair or renew.”

This, I think, is the central job of cultural organizing: to enhance our collective poetic and social imaginations. As Jeff Chang tells us, any successful social change effort requires a “collective leap of imagination.” Our charge is to facilitate this leap. And Maxine — through her writing and teaching, through her Foundation and her example — has blazed quite the trail for us. Thank you.

For a great tribute to Maxine, check out this comic by Nick Sousanis
Quotes from:
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Book Review: Hip Hop Genius

by Sam Seidel
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011. 156 pp. $22.95 (hardcover).

imagesIt’s the ingenuity that led youth in the South Bronx to turn electricity from streetlights and discarded pieces of linoleum into a party. It’s the something-from-nothing attitude that led young musicians to transform record players into instruments and to combine snatches of disco, funk, rock, and blues into the new American music. It is hip-hop genius, and, according to Sam Seidel, it just might be the antidote for what ails our public schools.

In Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education, educator and author Sam Seidel profiles the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota, an innovative charter school built around a student-run, for-profit record label where young people hone their artistic and leadership skills while learning about technology, business, collaboration, and more. The school works with youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of traditional schools—and even some alternative programs—by offering a remix of established alternative education models and its own unique contributions.

Continue Reading…

The Right to Bear Art

Today I’m guest blogging at another site: The Art Haus SLC, a community arts organization dedicated to “bringing creativity to the lives of individuals, families and students in the Salt Lake City area.” They are currently running a kickstarter campaign — Click here to learn more and offer your support.

In the US, art making is often treated as a privilege. Our very conception of “the artist” as someone separate from and different than the rest of us — the moody recluse or the superstar genius — privileges the few who show the requisite talent early on. But this attitude is nowhere more striking than in our public schools. As art experiences are cut in schools serving primarily poor students of color to make room for “core” courses and test prep, private schools continue to make art courses central. Art education has become a privilege offered to those already economically and racially privileged. As evidence of this trend, a study by the NEA 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%.

At the risk of overstatement, this is a human rights violation — at least, according to the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 27 of this document reads: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This is a powerful statement that reaches far beyond equal access to paint and brushes.

Art becomes a right when we begin to understand it not only as a form of individual creative activity, but also as one of the central ways that culture is created, critiqued, shared, and shifted. To cut off individuals, or even whole groups, from these conversations is to deny access to a certain type of power — the power to have a say in who we are, who is included in our “community,” and how we should be with one another. This conception of art as a right rather than a privilege is foundational to the community arts movement. But what does it mean for practice?

First of all, it means recognizing the ways that people are already participating in cultural life. Arts practice is taking place all around us, but often in ways not appreciated by mainstream arts and educational institutions. Second, it means sharing power and decision making in artistic spaces — moving from a service model to a collaborative model. Third, it means taking a serious look at how power and privilege — racial, cultural, economic, gender — shape our lives, our aesthetics, and our art spaces. Fourth, it means challenging institutions of artistic power, such as art schools and museums, to break down walls both physical and cultural. And finally, it means creating new artistic spaces that reflect the values of democracy, collaboration, and critical multiculturalism.

Stop Advocating for the Arts: Start Advocating for People

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.

Book Review: Storytelling for Social Justice

Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching
By Lee Anne Bell
Routledge, 2010

Last week I reviewed Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world. Today’s review is of a related book, this time from the perspective of an educator. Like the previous book, Storytelling for Social Justice is about deconstructing the dominant narratives that under-gird oppression — in this case particularly those that reinforce racism — and uncovering or creating counter-narratives using tools of art and storytelling.

But today’s review will not be from me, because a colleague of mine, Irene Liefshitz, has already written a fantastic one in the most recent issue of the Harvard Educational Review. I’ll give you a teaser below, and you can CLICK HERE to read the whole review.

A Review of Storytelling for Social Justice, by Lee Anne Bell
In our so-called postracial society, we have trouble talking about race, even in spaces intended for such conversations. In Storytelling for Social Justice, Lee Anne Bell expands our understanding of storytelling as a vehicle for race talk, builds a typology of stories to conceptualize racial discourse, and reaffirms the role of the arts in creating community. For educators who have struggled with race—and talking about race—in their personal lives and their classrooms, for social scientists who want to see how empirical and theoretical works influence pedagogy, and for the general reader who wants to learn about storytelling, this book is a great find...Continue Reading