Whatever Happened To “Arts Are Basic?” (Part 1)

Question: What do social-emotional learning, physical education, and art, music, and drama courses have in common?

Answer: All were progressive reforms introduced into public schools over a century ago and remain stable parts of public school curricula and classroom lessons in 2022.

Let me unpack that answer.

Most keen observers of people and institutions have noted that individuals and organizations display both stability and change. As individuals, we grow, mature, and change yet parents and grand-parents often remark how the little girl of 7 that they knew still has the personal traits of the 17 year-old teenager and 27 year-old wife and mom they see now. Stability in personality is a given (see here).

And that stability and change occurs as well in institutions. I have written often about the history of schooling exhibiting both features. The age-graded school, for example, is a remarkably stable organization in the nation’s public schools. Over the past century, it has expanded from grades 1-8 to pre-K-to-12. Rising numbers of graduates go on to community college and universities.

Moreover, class sizes have shrunk from their highs of 60-plus students a century ago to around 25 in many districts across the U.S. Teachers are far better educated than their predecessors three generations ago. Internet-wise students have the world at their fingertips with smart phones. Curricula have expanded. Social services have become part of public school offerings.

And yet consider what has occurred over the past century. There has been a Great Depression, two World Wars, a Cold War with the Soviet Union, the spread of nuclear weapons, and deep U.S. involvement with foreign aid and troops in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Add in periodic recessions, scientific innovations, and a standard of living that remains the envy of the world.

During these major events reshaping the nation, age-graded schools have remained a constant amid the swirl of demographic, political, economic, and societal changes in past decades. And it is that duality of stability and change in a familiar institution that has been academically labeled “dynamic conservatism.”

Usually I shun academic jargon, but this phrase has its hooks in me because the joining of two words that one would not ordinarily put together. “Dynamic” means energetic, lively, active, and vigorous. “Conservative” means traditional, stable, conventional. Yet together in describing U.S. schooling, the co-joined words make sense, at least, to this historian of education and long-time practitioner.

Which brings me around to the catch-phrase title of this post: Arts Are Basic. I first heard the phrase from my colleague Elliot Eisner when I joined the Stanford faculty in the early 1980s. Elliot’s office was two doors away from mine and we often would visit one another to chat about our students, projects we were working on, and gossip circulating among the faculty. I eventually read many of Elliot’s books and thought a lot of his passions for the arts and his coining of the concept of “connoisseurship,” or bringing to bear critical skills to analyze not only artistic products but also classroom lessons and teacher artistry (for readers who want to know more about Eisner’s journey into the arts, see here).

What brought Elliot Eisner to mind recently, however, was when I was biking home from an errand and passed a car in my neighborhood that had a bright red sticker on its bumper: Arts Are Basic.

The bumper sticker brought back a raft of memories about Elliot, his passion and acute analyses of arts in the curriculum, teaching, and learning, and–after turning it over and over in my mind–where this idea originated. Yes, as a historian of education, I look at something in a school, an educational idea, a subject in the curriculum, a classroom practice, and even a conversation and think: where did that come from?

And the short answer is that the roots of Arts Are Basic are buried in an earlier wave of reforms during the 1970s and 1980s that tried to douse sharp criticism of public schools as failures. These reforms aimed at restoring the primacy of the three Rs in elementary schools and math and science in secondary schools.

Debates then arose over spending scarce tax dollars on the visual and performing arts. And school boards across the country debated whether arts programs in the district should be cut. Art educators and parental allies lobbied school boards and superintendents to keep these programs. The next post deals with this recurring issue of whether arts in schools are marginal or basic to the mission of schooling.


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2 responses to “Whatever Happened To “Arts Are Basic?” (Part 1)

  1. I’m a retired elementary classroom and beginning band music teacher.
    Quote: “Debates then arose over spending scarce tax dollars on the visual and performing arts. And school boards across the country debated whether arts programs in the district should be cut.”

    Hmm. THERE IS ALWAYS MORE MONEY FOR WAR. $42 billion increase in defense spending?
    From The Hill:
    Congressional negotiators have reached a bipartisan deal on a sprawling omnibus package to fund the government, as pressure mounts on lawmakers to wrap up spending negotiations under the wire amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

    The legislation includes what Democrats have lauded as the biggest increase to nondefense discretionary spending in four years. The GOP has also touted a $42 billion increase for defense spending in the package, saying the deal achieves dollar-for-dollar parity for defense and nondefense increases.

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