The Arts, Critical Thinking, and Reform: Classrooms of the Future
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
As the arts very gradually gain attention as worthy and necessary
components of public school curriculum, they become more and more the
center of debates of policy and economics, yet, also become prime
sources of research, remodeling, and reform in terms of learning theory
and philosophy. The impressive development of school reform networks has
contributed greatly to this increased consideration of the arts as
serious study in our schools. Many of the reform groups seem to place an
emphasis upon cognitive activity, problem solving, intellectual
discipline, academic self-discipline, or, simply, thinking skills
development, and most include the arts as an integral part of the plan.
Implications of recent federal legislation
When Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, accepted the National
Standards for K-12 Arts Education at a press conference on March 11,
1994, a new era began for arts education in the United States. For the
first time, legislation was passed to enable the arts to share a more
important role in the public school classroom. Later that month,
President Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act which
established the National Education Standards and Improvement Council to
certify voluntary standards submitted by the states. In April, 1994, the
National Education Commission on Time and Learning included the arts
among the common core of learning in which all students should develop
skills and understanding.
The movement toward national standards will not, in themselves, bring
about the changes we seek. Such standards, voluntary at this moment, will
find fertile ground in the numerous school reform foundations and
networks. If, indeed, reform groups include arts study as an important
component in their programs, some high quality model programs might be on
the near horizon. They can not be aimless or disconnected series of
exercises. they must allow for, and nurture, a sense of primacy in the
arts in the search for the good life.
Education reform is currently a powerful force. We can take advantage of
it to strengthen our programs. But we can do so only if we are willing to
state clearly and precisely what it is that we want our students to know
and be able to do. We must demonstrate that music (and the other arts)
are subjects for sequential study and not merely an activity. (Lehman, 1993)
In Search of More Rigorous Programs
Will the reform groups have any real success in bringing about sufficient
academic challenge in secondary school programs in the visual arts,
music, dance, and drama? It might be years before we can assess the
impact of current reform networks upon secondary programs. We do know
that school reform networks such as the Accelerated Schools Project,
Coalition of Essential Schools, Core Knowledge Foundation, Galef
Institute, Project 30 and Holmes Group, and the National Paideia Center
clearly emphasize "intellectual payback"; students are expected to
achieve to the best of their ability.
As an example, consider the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). With
offices at Brown University within the Annenberg Institute for School
Reform, the coalition serves as a high school-university partnership.
Like all the reform groups mentioned above, the CES has identified a list
of commitments or "imperatives" for better schools. Two of these
imperatives echo much of what all these groups are saying: a) "Insist
that students clearly exhibit mastery of their school work," and b)
"Focus the students' work on the use of their minds." With 150 member
schools in 30 states, the CES, like the other reform groups, involves
both public and private schools, all of which are literally shaped by
goals that demand student mastery and achievement through
performance-based assessment (Brown U., 1994).
During an anticipated period of thinning out within agencies and state
governments, the Standards will become increasingly important. It will
have significant impact on educational policy in the arts. Three things
will happen, no matter what budget limitations might be:
- More attention given to "academic payback." Performance-based
Education will no longer be confused with Objectives-based Education
- Less reliance on budget shortfalls as an excuse for poor organization
- Continued attempts to develop awareness skills in arts/aesthetics, to
widen the modes of perception and sensitivity to art objects and
concepts, and appreciation for them.
The future of arts "core" subjects in grades 8-12
Although the Core Knowledge Foundation is involved only with grades K-6
(grades 7 and 8 will be included by fall 1995), the group's philosophical
and curricular approaches are relevant to all levels. Its spiral
curriculum, allowing for substantial study in music and visual arts, is
driven by the concept of learning in sequence.
The Sequence offers a planned progression of specific knowledge in
history, geography, mathematics, science, language arts, and fine arts.
It represents a first and ongoing attempt to state specifically a core of
shared knowledge that children should learn in American schools. It
should be emphasized that the Core Knowledge Sequence is not a list of
facts to be memorized. Rather, it is a guide to coherent content from
grade to grade, designed to encourage steady academic progress as
children build their knowledge and skills from one year to the next"
(Core Knowledge Foundation, 1995).
Because of the strong representation of the arts in its schema, and
because more than 150 schools in 30 states are implementing the program,
Core Knowledge is a strong representative of the many model programs that
recognize the arts as essential. Unfortunately, there are those who
criticize Core Knowledge as elitist, attempting to impose elite culture
on everyone. Such critics appear to be part of the same faction that is
determined to revise and reorganize history and literature to further
their own ideals and social and educational objectives. E. D. Hirsch,
founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia,
has responded to such critics as follows: "Core Knowledge is an anti
-elitist idea. It aims to guarantee equal access for all to the knowledge
necessary for higher literacy and learning" (Core, 7-10). For some time
Hirsch has echoed many thoughtful scholar-educators in his concerns about
the questionable level of "cultural literacy" in the United States. The
Core concept is by no means new; it is simply being renewed and
invigorated out of deep concern for the well-being of our schools.
Cultural literacy in the high school
With the slow but sure success of core concept (or related models),
programs at the early grade levels should finally impact upon secondary
and even post-secondary policy and curriculum.
Systems that achieve across-the-board effectiveness in early schooling
are systems that specify a core of knowledge that children should acquire
in each grade of elementary school. All the national systems that are
fair by the IEA standard do in fact use this core-knowledge approach. By
contrast, no national system that fails to use a core knowledge approach
has managed to achieve fairness [in public schooling]. The
cross-correlations between fairness and core knowledge are 100% (Hirsch,
With the slow but not-so-sure success of the core concept at the high
school level, several imperatives must be realized for achieving success:
- Increased emphasis on discipline-based arts approaches to supplement
and complement drill-orientated programs
- Serious reform in arts assessment and evaluation as related to high school (public or private) graduation requirements
- Critical links between elementary and secondary arts identified and clearly defined
- A cultural literacy that embraces a true multiculturalism
- Increased emphasis on excellence and fairness
- Increased research and experimentation with Humanities curricula
- More study and writing "across the curriculum."
Extending the core knowledge general concepts beyond any one particular
group or movement seems natural and logical, if the goals and principles
of most reform groups can be taken seriously. Consider the second of the
nine Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES):
The school's goals should be simple: that each student master a limited
number of essential skills and areas of knowledge. While these skills and
areas will, to varying degrees, reflect the traditional academic
disciplines, the program's design should be shaped by the intellectual
and imaginative powers and competencies that students need, rather than
necessarily by "subjects" as conventionally defined. (Coalition, 4)
Institutional/Traditional vs. "Open" (Anything Goes)
The ongoing battle of institutional/traditional arts vs. "open" arts
(anything goes) will rage on. The public is confused as to what art is.
The word, "artist," probably appears in English-speaking nations as a
malapropos more than any other in the vocabulary. The blind rush toward
egalitarianism has left us currently with a dilemma, what the late William A. Henry III, culture critic for Time magazine called "the great post-World War II American dialectic and tension between elitism and egalitarianism" (Henry 1994).
Anti-intellectual populism seems at times almost out of control, with the
idea of inclusion carried to an absurd extreme. As the arts and
entertainment often reflect our society, it should not surprise us that
much of our entertainment since 1950 celebrates mediocrity and rewards
the banal. In music, minimalism abounds in pop hits; even serious concert
music has its minimalist offerings (e.g., that of Philip Glass, Steve
Reich, and John Adams, three minimalist composers who have gained some
considerable fame and fortune with their craft).
Withstanding Political Agendas
For the last 30 to 40 years, those who have willfully misunderstood and
reinvented the past have been less concerned with the education of our
nation than with their political agendas. To openly recognize the fact
that this kind of contrived egalitarianism has resulted in some evidence
of stunted growth in the arts is not considered the thing to do. Yet,
amid all this philosophic turmoil, there remains a marvelous, albeit
small, elite in the arts and the world of entertainment. From around the
world several young violinists, numerous pianists, dramatists, painters,
sculptors, poets, dancers--many of them not yet 25 years of age-are
already part of the elite. Some will remain for many years as the
supermen and superwomen of the arts. Jazz continues to furnish us with
new members of this elite. This small-truly multicultural-elite in the
arts and entertainment--seems to get better every decade. Even as dismal
as is the status of singing among the American public, the small but
first-rate group of young opera, concert, and choral singers issuing
forth from U. S. programs is impressive. It is the masses, the 95 or so
per cent who have been losing out over the years. They are part of what
anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1970 called "the impending Dark Ages of
American culture" (Mead, 1970).
If we can agree that the small select group of those who are the artists
in the truest sense of the term are as good as ever, maybe better, then
we might also agree that more attention must be given to the remainder of
our society. That ninety-five per cent of the population just might live
fuller lives through better understanding and appreciation of the arts,
aesthetic experiences free for the taking.
We must foster the realization that the joys of aesthetic discourse are
available to everyone, regardless of class or social position, and we
must seek to provide our citizens with the skills necessary for a
lifetime of participation in it (Gunstream, 1986).
We might find that some remedies lie within the school reform networks.
Six of the seven major school reform groups cited earlier form a clear
consensus, which is highlighted by the following points that apply to
- Most important purposes of quality public education
- intellectual discipline
- problem solving
- ethical ideas
- thinking skills development
- Programs infused with sufficient rigor
- Recognition of the essential coexistence of elitism and
egalitarianism in the arts K-12
- Emphasis on curricular change and experimentation in seeking an improved learning environment.
Social and ethnic contextualism might not continue to be as much of a
driving factor in the new century. As a result, the construct, "cultural
literacy," will be more easily defined and understood; cultural literacy
must remain on a foundation of universal truths and ideas. The term has
been misused badly. Cultural literacy does not mean specifically
"understanding of other cultures," even though such understanding is
certainly a natural part of the schema. It refers to the understanding
and communication of essential elements of expression of the human spirit
in our civilization.
Is it Art or Entertainment?
At first glance, this is a question of little consequence to the majority
of our population, but most of us who are concerned, are deeply
concerned. In the context of daily life, our answers to the question will
determine how culturally literate we are as individuals and as groups.
Our answers to the question will have some bearing on curriculum
development, policy, assessment, andexpectations.
Enter Critical Thinking
Although the reform groups I have cited in this writing seldom mention
critical thinking as an entity, they constantly refer to analysis skills,
cognitive development, higher order thinking, etc., which most certainly
relate to such a construct. By consensus, "critical thinking" would today
be defined as: disciplined process of analyzing, synthesizing, or
evaluating information resulting from observation, reasoning, or
reflection, based upon intellectual values that apply to all areas of
human experience. It is this critical thinking emphasis nested within the
objectives of the reform networks cited that presents the nation with
some hope for the future of education, including some short-range relief
from the desultory condition of arts among the general public as well as
in the American high school.
Coalition of Essential Schools. (1994). The common principles.
Providence: Brown U.
Core Knowledge Foundation. (1995). Core knowledge sequence.
Gunstream, R. (1986). Yesterday's wind, today's whirlwind. Design for
Arts in Arts Education, 87 (5), 5-15.
Henry III, W. (1994). In Defense of Elitism. NY: Doubleday.
Hirsch, E. (1991). Fairness and Core Knowledge. Charlottesville: Core
Lehman, P. (1993). National standards for K-12 arts education.
Educational Leadership in the Arts. Chapel Hill: UNC.
Mead, M. (1970). Culture and commitment. New York: Natural History