Imagine: A Nation Without
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
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.
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
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.
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
is the Executive Director of the Lincoln Center Institute.