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MAY 2004

Imagine: A Nation Without the Arts
by Scott Noppe-Brandon

Several issues ago, I presented my concern that the arts are not part of the educational policy discussion at the national level and asked for reader feedback about why this is so. A number of people have responded, positing a variety of opinions.

Mainly, they agree, the root cause of this situation is the kind of political leadership we have nationally today. As tempting as it is to embrace a simple answer to a complex question by blaming a political party, I do not believe this position can be defended historically. We need to keep digging deeper. And time is of the essence.

A crisis regarding the role of the arts at the national education level does seem to be brewing. A wonderful, newly released “study of American K-12 students' access to a complete curriculum in the liberal arts” titled Academic Atrophy: The Condition of the Liberal Arts in America's Public Schools, published by the Council for Basic Education with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, found “ample evidence of waning commitment to the arts (along with foreign language, and elementary school social studies, civics, and geography)”. Even more distressing is the fact that this trend is worse in urban areas with high-minority populations, the group of schools and students where historically art and education have suffered most.

I fear that one of the most important reasons for this is the view that the arts are an exclusive, elite domain that has no bearing on how the vast majority of the student population face their daily lives and interact with the society they live in.

This is, to put it mildly, unenlightened thinking.

At Lincoln Center Institute, where our work is based on the writing and teachings of John Dewey and Maxine Greene, among others, we emphasize how study of art can open up new possibilities for students, fostering democratic principles and leading them to a greater sense of social justice. As Greene says, rather than being a fringe or a frill, aesthetic education is “integral to the development of persons—their cognitive, perceptual, emotional and imaginative development.” In this sense, it is essential for the development of citizens. Citizens who, through education in the arts avoid “passivity and boredom and come awake to the colored, sounding, problematic world.” Or, as stated by Benjamin Barber, “…art and democracy share a dependency on one extraordinary human gift, imagination. It is the faculty by which we stretch ourselves to include others, expand the compass of our interests to discover common ground, and overcome the limits of our parochial selves to become fit subjects to live in democratic societies.” Once again, Greene states that urgency behind developing “what we are calling a social imagination—a capacity to envisage a transcending of the violence, the unfairness, the alienation, the carelessness we see and feel around us…” I am convinced that the work of social imagination, both in the arts and apart from the arts should be focal in fostering visions of a better state of things and, hopefully, transforming them into palpable realities.

So I ask, how can we, the people, allow the liberal arts, especially art and imagination, to not be part of the national agenda for educating our nation's youth? This is more urgent than ever at a time when we, as a country, face such tests of our imagination, our will, and our sense of freedom. I have never believed that the arts are more important than the other academic disciplines, but certainly we can not, should not, must not, become a nation that believes that we are truly educated without the arts and their capacity to develop the imagination. That thought is quite frankly beyond my wildest imagination.#

Scott Noppe–Brandon is the Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute.

Education Update, Inc.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2005.