What’s Broadway’s most popular, top-grossing pandemic-delayed show? A revival of Meredith Willson’s 1957 show, The Music Man, featuring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. This old-fashioned musical in many respects epitomizes what we mean by Americana: it offers a comforting, highly sentimental vision of the American past, stripped of its diversity and conflicts.
And yet, alongside the musical’s spirit-lifting portrayal of a brazen, cynical, yet endearing con man, there is another thread that deserves attention: the townspeople of River City’s yearning for something more than their banal, humdrum, colorless lives. For art, music and culture.
To my mind, the single biggest weakness in a college education today involves arts education. Sure, our institutions typically offer an array of courses in music appreciation and in art or theater history, but that’s not what arts education means to me.
Shouldn’t arts education be more participatory and performative, not just for the most gifted and talented, but for all students? If we want to nurture creative expression, cultivate a lifelong interest in the arts, foster a delight in the joy that comes from participating in the arts and produce knowledgeable, perceptive audiences, we need to approach arts education in innovative ways.
The need could scarcely be greater. We mustn’t minimize the arts’ therapeutic functions. Participation in the arts offers ways to explore and express emotions, manage and relieve stress, work through psychological and emotional challenges, foster self-awareness and mindfulness, and cultivate sensory-motor skills and perceptual, listening and hermeneutic abilities.
Participation in the arts can also affirm identities and motivate and engage students who otherwise find their academic education excessively abstract.
Much as war is too important to leave to generals, so too arts education is too valuable to be reserved only to up-and-coming artists, creative writers and musicians. Just as we’ve increasingly relegated youth sports to the most promising young athletes, we have increasingly set aside the opportunity to perform, draw and write creatively to those with special talent.
Today, most students will, alas, not attend a concert or a play, let alone an opera or a ballet. Indeed, few watch historically significant feature films within an academic context. How can we hope to build an audience for the arts if we fail to expose students in these formative years to the arts in their full richness?
A number of colleges and universities provide vivid examples about how fresh approaches to arts education can be scaled.
At Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system, students in Humanities 20100: Explorations in the Arts visit museums and archives and attend musical, theatrical, dance and operatic performances and then participate in signature seminars led by knowledgeable and committed faculty mentors and guest artists, composers, critics, novelists and playwrights, in which they examine the historical contexts and the aesthetic, cultural and philosophical significance of the works they are seeing and hearing.
An outgrowth of a Mellon Foundation Arts Across the Curriculum planning grant, HUM 20100 has the twin goals of infusing the humanities and the arts into student life of the college in a systematic and sustainable way and of awakening curiosity about aspects of the humanities and arts among a highly diverse, career-oriented generation of undergraduates.
Of course, since Hunter is located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, only a short bus or subway ride from the Academy of American Poets, the Asia Society, the Guggenheim Museum, the Frick Collection, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Neue Galerie and the Public Theater, it’s relatively easy to integrate the arts into the curriculum.
But there are ways to replicate something like these experiences, if only virtually, partnering with campus museums and taking advantage of on-campus performances.
The University of Houston took a very different approach to scaling arts education. A team-taught course on the creative process featured lectured lectures by and interviews with the campus’ artists in residence, who, at the time, included the playwrights Edward Albee and Elizabeth Brown Guillory, the composer Carlisle Floyd, the poet Edward Hirsch, the sculptor Luis Jimenez, the novelist Colson Whitehead, and the actress Lois Chiles, among others.
This class, organized and directed by Lois Parkinson Zamora, a leader in the comparative study of the arts and literature of the Americas, examined various theories of the creative process, including the internal factors, such as the artist’s life experiences, emotions and states of mind, that shape the creation of artistic works, and the external factors, including genre considerations and current societal circumstances. The course also looked at issues of craft, including concept formulation, artistic technique and material or thematic exploration.
Here, I might mention VIVA, the virtual visiting artists’ nonprofit that connects campuses to artists who are largely women, artists of color or from LGBTQ+ backgrounds.
But what about expanding opportunities to actually participate in the arts? Too often, opportunities to take part in arts classes; dance courses; acting, performance and production classes; and creative writing or screenwriting workshops, or even to take piano and other music lessons, are reserved for the most privileged young people.
But scaling opportunities to participate in the artistic lessons and performances isn’t beyond our capabilities. It’s more a matter of priorities and will. The steps institutions can take are obvious:
- Partner with local museums, theater and dance companies, and other arts organizations.
- Invite local artists and performers to host workshops and studio opportunities.
It’s no secret that arts education in K-12 schools has declined and that low-income, Black and Hispanic children are disproportionately unlikely to participate in childhood arts education. In many instances, K-12 schools spend more money on sports than on the arts.
Yet we also know that students from low-income backgrounds who are highly involved in the arts are far less likely to drop out of high school, and they score higher on standardized tests and are much more likely to graduate from college.
The explanations for the distorted priorities are no secret: funds have been diverted from the arts due to a heightened emphasis on reading and math test scores.
The consequences of defunding arts education surround us. As a RAND Corporation report found, even before the pandemic, audiences for classical music, jazz, opera, musical theater, theater and the visual arts were falling as a share of the population. Between 2002 and 2015, the percentage of adults who visited an art museum or gallery declined by about 20 percent.
Without in any way seeking to denigrate the ancient seafaring people who lived on the south coast of Canaan about 3,000 years ago, I fear we are becoming a nation of Philistines in the artistic sense: a people who deprecate the arts, who favor kitsch over more demanding art forms and who fail, to a disturbing degree, to patronize the arts and artists.
The solution strikes me as obvious: let’s give our students more opportunities to engage with works of art, interact with artists and make art.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.