I listened in on an National Endowment for the Arts webinar today that was billed as addressing arts education. But the reality was, the speaker, Richard Harwood of the Harwood Institute seemed to feel arts education shouldn’t be a primary concern in most communities. From what I understood, he felt that the arts had much more immediate assets they could provide to communities and arts education was a focus for a later stage.
The NEA will post a more complete version of the webinar in a couple weeks. However, if you are interested in learning more immediately, there is a captioning transcript available of the session. I was monitoring it while I took notes of my own to help me keep up. Be warned that there are some omissions and mistakes. [NB the audio is now available online]
As a result, I will mostly be paraphrasing here unless I am confident that what I am quoting is reasonably accurate.
Harwood echoed part of the current conversation about making arts relevant in a community, namely that the focus has to be on the shared aspirations of the community and not on those of an individual organization or group of organizations.
He mentioned how he would often hear comments from people wondering why a program that worked for a community down the road didn’t work for their own. The reason is that you can’t borrow something from another community that is not aligned with the shared aspirations of your own.
“Communities that move forward the fastest are ones who align around shared aspirations, not simply coordination of programs…”
As he has traveled the country, Harwood said the number one issue he hears people mention isn’t foreclosure of homes, inability to pay college tuition or that they have lost their jobs. The top concern was that we need to restore our belief that we can come together to get things done.
Harwood strongly urged listeners
“…to think about what it is that enables us to create the belief we can come together to get things done. I think there are ways to change our efforts so we embody that belief. We need to pay attention to the narrative of our communities. I don’t need to tell you how important this is.”
Among the narratives that have to be worked against are the idea “we tried that 30 years ago, why would we try it again?” or “I am waiting for the next mayor to get elected.” He said that Americans have retreated from public life because “They didn’t see their reality reflected in public discourse. Belief starts with a notion something you care about that I care about matters.”
This was really the first time I heard someone talk about the challenge facing arts and arts education in the context of a societal malaise. Looking at it in this context, the cultural wars of that 80s that have seen a recent resurgence aren’t so much about people hating arts and culture. It is that arts and culture is being used as a whipping boy for something much larger.
In a sense, I think we all know that, but until Harwood spent close to 30 minutes talking about the problem without really mentioning the arts at all, I didn’t recognize that the tensions really aren’t about the arts at all. It is about a lack of trust and belief in one another. The way he talks about it, arts and culture have bigger contributions to make than providing music lessons and an enjoyable Friday date night. The arts can be instrumental in mending society.
He says every community has a multiplicity of competing narratives. The question isn’t how to resolve the competing narratives, but rather to illuminate them. Explore how we understand the narratives. What do the arts bring to them and what do arts bring to how people express these narratives.
He uses an example of Youngstown, OH where his company was brought in after the public schools were taken over by the state. As they engaged adults around education they heard that the adults were afraid of the kids. They crossed the street when they saw the young people. When they looked into the eyes of the children, they didn’t see the essential qualities needed to succeed. All they saw were troublemakers who would end up behind bars. They didn’t see them as the future of the community.
When they talked to the kids, they basically agreed that this was how the adults saw them. It is at this point that Harwood explicitly says that if we are really concerned about kids and arts education, the kids need to be engaged around who they want to be and how they see adults in their lives.
You might ask about arts education, but Harwood says he would never start with the arts. It is the job of the arts community to figure out how the arts can fit into what they want to become so they can reach their potential, become creative, innovative and express themselves.
Basically, you don’t try to figure out how to get them to fit into the arts.
When it comes to involving children and the arts, Harwood feel that what the arts offer that few others don’t is the power to convene. They have the power to bring people together in these conversations.
He says, (and I hope I am getting this correct because the transcript is a little spotty), he “thinks the arts, unlike a lot of other things, is not fundamentally about policy disputes. It is about creating something.” Due to this, he feels the whole focal point begins to shift because the fact art is about expression can help create norms for kids. Including the norm of what does it mean to create something.
He notes, arts deal with the whole child. So much else only deals with one piece so addressing the whole child can be a huge calling card for arts in education.
Obviously, a lot of interesting things to think about. As I suggest, putting arts education as part of a later step after other divisions have been healed shifted my perspective. I realized that culture wars conflict about the arts is really a symptom of something much bigger.
As narcissistic as many arts professionals may be, I think we can survive knowing it ain’t all about us in this case.