Arts Academy

in the Woods

Home // Art Integrated Education // Dr. Mitchell Explains Arts Education in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Dr. Mitchell Explains Arts Education in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

As principal of Arts Academy in the Woods in Fraser, Michigan, Dr. Mike Mitchell has been passionate about arts education for many decades.

Of course, in spite of what his high-school aged students might believe, he wasn’t born in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, he’s well-versed on arts education in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

So this week, we’ll take a journey with Dr. Mitchell. He’ll guide us through this era to investigate what arts education looked like “back in the day.”

No Consistency for Arts Education in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

“Arts education, in one form or another, has long been a part of the curriculum in the American educational system,” says Mitchell. “But unlike certain subject areas like math and English, there have been periods when art education was the norm, and times when it was much less common.”

The trend for arts education has been on the downturn for quite some time – at least partially a result of the emphasis of STEM subjects.

Just ten years ago, a study of schools in California found that 61% of schools do not have even one full-time art teacher. And similar trends can be seen across the country.

Furthermore, the study found that less than 47% of tested eighth-graders attended schools with visual arts instruction and 57% attended schools with music instruction. This was particularly the case in poorer, urban school districts.

This wasn’t always the case though.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some prominent events and theorists who drove the discussion on arts education in America. “And as new ideas developed, they often led to changes in public perceptions, which led to changes in how the arts were taught,” says Mitchell.

Horace Mann was one such figure.

Who Was Horace Mann?

In the early 19th century, public education served largely to teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It was also an opportunity to learn a trade. As such, the arts generally showed up in the classroom in the form of technical drawing and drafting. 

But by the mid 19th century, labor unions were stressing the importance of social reform. Union leaders were afraid that public schools for the poor would include only basic reading and arithmetic. And they lacked the more important intellectual development that could empower the working class.

In stepped Horace Mann.

Mann was a respected 19th-century politician and education reformer. He advocated educational concepts such as an education for all children and separating students based on their age gained wide support.

In fact, Mann is often credited as the person most responsible for the structure of public education in America. So he was kind of a big deal. And people cared about what he had to say.

He wrote annual reports that addressed the state of education and promoted certain educational ideals at that time. One of the ideals he discussed was both the impact and importance of teaching art, specifically vocal music, in public schools.

Mann saw that adding art into the curriculum would enhance other learning and he soon made visual art and music part of the Massachusetts state curriculum for public schools.

“His timing was good too. America was already primed toward art appreciation as a result of the European philosophical movement known as Romantic Idealism,” says Mitchell. One of the curricular movements of Romantic Idealism stated that understanding and appreciation of art created by others contributed to the natural growth of children’s personal development and expression.

And arts educators would be the first to agree.

New Theories Lessen the Importance of Art

But as the late 19th and early 20th centuries moved forward, there were other more… pragmatic players.

During this time, American society and education were becoming largely influenced by the psychological philosophy of behaviorism.

Theorists such as John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner were among the best-known behaviorists. And they felt that the outward behavioral aspects of thought were far more important than more inward experiential thoughts.

In other words, the focus began to shift away from art once again.

Plus, increasing efficiency of workers in factories was now in vogue. And the management theories of men like Frederick W.  Taylor were integrated into education models.

“Learning was something that was reinforced through drill and practice, praise, or some other form of reward,” says Mitchell.

Such an approach allowed for large amounts of factual information to be learned in a short amount of time. And while this had some benefits, the importance of free expression and celebration of the individual – the sorts of ideals the arts strive for – was discouraged.

John Dewey and the Progressive Movement

Still, as the early 20th century progressed, there was an increasingly growing middle class. Perhaps, in part, as a result of the efficiency of those management theories.

At any rate, this growing middle class had more leisure time and they placed a premium on cultural enrichment. Because they had more time (and money) they were drawn to the newest social reform movement known as Progressivism.

Progressive thinkers pursued reforms in society, the environment, politics, economics, and education. They felt that the arts and cultural enrichment were a necessary curriculum goal in schools.

“The leading educational theorist associated with the Progressive movement was John Dewey,” says Mitchell. “He suggested that children needed education that was authentic. Education should be something that would allow them to grow mentally, physically, and socially by providing opportunities to be creative, critical thinkers.”

In essence, Dewey believed that students would learn by doing.

It also didn’t hurt that Dewey was one of the first researchers to find a positive correlation between art instruction and cognition. 

“In his Laboratory School in Chicago, he discovered that arts needed to be a foundational part of the curriculum. He found that it developed creativity, self-expression, and an appreciation of the expression of others,” says Mitchell.

He also stated that the arts were key for developing imagination – which was the impetus for social change.

This research had a profound effect on curriculum decisions of the time. And that meant giving the arts a prominent role in the educational curriculum.

Dewey was such an important figure that he’s often cited as providing the theoretical foundation for arts integration.

Further Developments in the 20th Century

Arts education would be affected by several other events in the first half of the 20th century. 

But education in the very early 20th century is notable for its increasingly inclusive approach to curricular decisions. And this included decisions related to arts education.

“During this period, there was the child study movement which explored theories about the ways children learn,” says Mitchell. “This approach to the arts in the curriculum marked the first time that arts education concepts were advocated for their contributions to other subject areas. And as an arts integration educator, that’s pretty cool.”

One of the more revolutionary concepts of this time was a 1918 Federal Bureau of Education commissioned report entitled “The Cardinal Rules of Education.

As the title suggested, the report provided suggestions on the general direction of education in the form of “rules” for education. One such rule was the sixth rule which emphasized student appreciation of literature, art, and music.

The report also suggested a reorganization of schools’ curricula based on themes rather than by subject area. It stressed the importance of “integrated curriculum,” as well as “correlated curriculum,” “fused curriculum,” and “project curriculum.”

All four were cited as improved means to prepare young adults for adult life.

“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.”

So What Happened Next?

Unfortunately, all of the progress made by arts education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to a crashing halt in 1929 when the Great Depression hit.

But Dr. Mitchell will cover that in his “first Mondays” post next month. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you want to see how arts integration is effectively working right now in 2019, come and take a tour of Arts Academy in the Woods in Fraser, Michigan.

And prepare for possibility.


* indicates required