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Dr. Mitchell Explains Art Education in the Mid to Late 20th Century

As principal of Arts Academy in the Woods in Fraser, Michigan, Dr. Mike Mitchell loves to talk about arts education.

Of course, he loves to talk about other things too. Like Canadian television. So yeah. He’s pretty much the life of the party.

But fortunately, he knows when and when not to talk arts education. For example, a while back in another blog post, he shared his knowledge of art education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And for the sake of this post, he’s going to talk arts education – more specifically, art education in the mid to late 20th century. So buckle up.

Art Education in the Mid to Late 20th Century Changed with the Great Depression

“Things were looking pretty good for arts education by the early 1920s,” says Mitchell.

“There was a general consensus about the value of art education and art appreciation was accepted as part of a balanced curriculum.”

But that came to a crashing halt with the Great Depression. Funding to all areas of the economy, including education was drastically reduced and many schools eliminated art programs.

While Roosevelt’s New Deal programs reinstated some funding for arts education, public opinion had already shifted. They saw the arts as a luxury afforded primarily to the wealthy and/or talented.

Then with rationing as a priority during World War II, arts education continued to lose funding. Political change would soon affect it too. 

Noneconomic Events That Affected Arts Education

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, arts education was primarily affected by economic changes. Simply put, when the country was doing well economically, there was funding for arts education. When it wasn’t, those funds were cut.

But by the middle of the century, politics started to have an impact on arts education. There were, in particular, three influential events:

1. Launching of the Sputnik 

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, America became concerned they were falling behind them technologically. This, in turn, led to an increased educational focus on math and sciences.

Yes, this forced arts education into the background. But it also caused arts educators to feel that their work was endangered. And this caused them to mobilize and organize their efforts to reposition arts teaching and learning in the educational policy arena.

2. Social and Cultural Programs of Kennedy and Johnson

The 1960s was an era of economic well being for many Americans. And the progressive administrations of both Kennedy and Johnson produced several lasting institutions that have, to this day, supported the arts.

“Kennedy and Johnson each appointed a Special Consultant for the Arts,” says Mitchell. “These developments were seen as precursors to the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 that would spearhead support for artists in school initiatives.”

The open-mindedness of the 1960s was also responsible for a shift from behaviorism (which we discussed at length in the last blog post) to a growing movement in cognitive psychology known as constructivism. 

Constructivism was essentially the theoretical opposite of behaviorism. Constructivists suggest that students be allowed time to experiment and discuss in order to discover how things work. From there, they are encouraged to “construct” meaning based on the information learned through physical and mental manipulation.

Two of the most prominent theorists connected with constructivism were Harry Broudy and Eliot Eisner.

Although not a constructivist per se, Broudy was instrumental in reviving the ideas of art integration. His basic theoretical scheme proposed that education should be used to develop a child’s imagination, rather than the intellectual operations of the mind.

Especially those of acquiring facts and problem solving purely by hypothetical-deductive thinking.

Meanwhile, Eisner’s conceptual framework for integration built on the theories of Dewey. He believed that in order to achieve the unique cognitive benefits of the arts, children should be given the opportunity to experience different forms of representation – e.g., visual, kinesthetic, auditory – because these activities develop their ability to interact with and comprehend the world around them.

As Mitchell puts it, “Eisner’s view of cognition posits that words, alone, cannot fully describe the depth and breadth of the human experience.”

3. Publication of A Nation at Risk

In spite of all the progress arts education made in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s would prove to be far more challenging.

The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk, in concert with a weakened economy, led to an unraveling of the support that arts education had gained over the previous few decades.

“Much like the Sputnik launch, the U. S. Department of Education publication promoted the idea that America was falling behind again,” says Mitchell. “This time, however, the primary enemy was the global economy rather than an individual country.”

The authors of A Nation at Risk charged that the nation’s educational system should refocus on the “five new basics” in order to battle the tide of mediocrity that was threatening the people and future of the United States. (Their words, not ours.)

And what were those five basics? English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science.

Is was clear that arts education was in danger.

By 1988, the head of the National Education Association was proposing that arts education should include concepts that were presented in A Nation at Risk, including sequential curricula, comprehensive testing, and improved data gathering – to name a few.

Howard Gardner and Art Education in the Mid to Late 20th Century

In 1983, the same year A Nation at Risk was published, psychologist Howard Gardner proposed his theory of Multiple Intelligences. His theory describes how differently cognition occurs for different individuals.

This was a radical break from what A Nation at Risk was proposing.

Gardner’s theory eventually included eight types of intelligence: logical-mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. A ninth type of intelligence – existentialist – is up for consideration.

The theory held that although each type of intelligence is present to some degree in nearly everyone, Gardner proposed that each individual possesses his or her own unique blend of intelligences. These intelligences rarely operate independently, but rather tend to complement one another as students develop skills or solve problems.

It is Gardner’s theory that is often used in support of arts integration.

“Although some types of intelligence, particularly the first two, are highly rewarded in traditional, behaviorist models of schooling and standardized testing, the other intelligences are more difficult to assess,” says Mitchell. “But those can be utilized as part of planning tool for the purposes of arts integration.”

Even so, education in the 1980s continued to chug ahead, fueled by the standards-based and accountability educational reforms of that decade.

It wouldn’t be until 1994 when The Educate America Act was passed to assist states in creating standardized curricula in subject \matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography so that all students in American public schools would be able to demonstrate proficiency by the year 2000. 

This legislation marked the first federal policy that recognized the arts as part of the basic curriculum in public schools. It also propelled many states to adopt or develop their own arts education standards. With this, the arts were educationally validated.

Art Education and No Child Left Behind

Except for maybe the artistically inclined children.

Despite the above legislation, the 2000 election of George W. Bush was partially based on his ideas for education reform which he based on the policies in place while he was governor of Texas.

In Texas, testing in mathematics and language arts served as the primary mechanisms for measuring student, school, and district success. These policies became the backbone of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002.

The primary effect on education had been that high-stakes testing in math and reading dominated national educational improvement efforts and that areas not tested directly on high-stakes exams, such as the fine arts, were receiving less and less attention in the curriculum.

Educators generally had low opinions of this legislation and believed it negatively impacted other areas of student learning. Teachers reported that they ignored important aspects of the curriculum, de-emphasized or completely neglected untested topics, and tended to focus their instruction on tested subjects, sometimes excessively.

Art education in the mid to late 20th century continues to evolve.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Even so, the federal government continues to focus on reading and mathematics. And science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) take center stage. 

But the research is out there. There are those who have added arts into STEM (making it STEAM), knowing that arts are integral to the development of the whole child. Furthermore, noted theorists have recognized and supported the lifelong benefits that the arts have provided students as they become adults.

The Difference between Learning in the Arts and through the Arts

Learning in the arts involves instruction in the skills and abilities of artists. For example, reading music notation or the “proper” way to hold a paintbrush.

“While learning through art involves activities that utilize the arts in order to clarify concepts in another field,” Mitchell explains. “Examples would include analyzing musical patterns in math class or studying paintings in history class.”

Learning through the arts allows students to learn beyond the rote recall of information. The curriculum is designed to enable students to apply what has been taught. Through this application, higher order thinking skills, risk-taking, and creativity are enhanced.

So Now What?

Seeing how much art education in the mid to late 20th century has fluctuated and changed, it’s hard to say.

What we can say is that arts integration is effectively working right now in 2019. Come and see for yourself.

Set up a time to take a tour of Arts Academy in the Woods in Fraser, Michigan.

And prepare for possibility.


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