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The Arts in the Public Schools: An Intellectual History

Advocates for public schools have always needed to explain how they serve the public good, and these explanations have evolved within larger discourses of national identity. In this context, the public schools’ arts curriculum poses significant questions about America’s self-concept. Do the arts serve the public good (or are they, say, just a luxury)? And conversely: if the arts epitomize our best and freest selves, is any public good that excludes them really good at all?

The public school curriculum is difficult to study because it is largely written by local teachers and administrators, and thus varies widely. These local actors, though, often look to national educational thinkers for guidance. What follows is a thumbnail intellectual history of the arts within the national curriculum discourse, moving chronologically but organized by different conceptions of the public good.

When Horace Mann launched the public school movement in the 1830s and 1840s, he argued that public education would make the people better workers, and that drawing, which he wanted to include in the curriculum, had commercial applications. But Mann also believed, more idealistically, that the public schools promoted a self-governing society of self-governing individuals. Mann defined the self-governing person, according to the faculty psychology of the era, as one whose mental powers were all strongly developed, with the higher rational faculties controlling the lower emotional and physical ones. Art’s role within the pedagogy of faculty psychology, known as “mental discipline,” was ambiguous. For Mann, art was uniquely able to engage all levels of the faculty hierarchy at once; singing, for instance, exercised the physical faculties by improving lung power, the emotional faculties by its “affinity with peace, hope, [and] affection,” and the rational faculties via the “mathematical relations” among tones. By contrast, the 1893 Committee of Ten omitted the arts from the first national high school curriculum guidelines because they lacked the mental-disciplinary value of academic subjects.

After the Civil War, as the U.S. grew into a society of large bureaucratic organizations, the self-governing individual was supplanted, as an educational ideal, by the coordinated society and the individual as realized through community. William Torrey Harris, a Hegelian philosopher, superintendent of the St. Louis schools (1867-1880), and US Commissioner of Education (1889-1906), argued that in order to achieve true “self-activity” and discover her “higher ideal nature,” the student’s “brittle individualism” must be subordinated to the “established law” of civilization. Harris’s curriculum initiated students into the collective wisdom of the past, and in literature he favored classics that revealed the grandeur of human potential. In art, he argued that the aesthetic principles of repetition, symmetry, and harmony mirror the stages of the individual’s induction into civilization. At the same time, like Mann, he also asserted the commercial value of art.

Progressive Era educators debated the extent to which social coordination should account for individual preferences. Harris, while extolling “self-activity,” saw “punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence” as the real basis of “successful combination with fellows in an industrial civilization”; his “self-activity” did not mean self-assertion. As a corrective to Harris, and to mental discipline, the American Herbartians (named after the German philosopher Johann Herbart) propounded the “Doctrine of Interest,” the idea that learning requires giving one’s attention freely to the material. Defining “interesting” lessons as those that seamlessly built upon one’s prior knowledge, they pressed for an integrated curriculum in which all lessons were carefully linked. “Just as the individual states yielded some of their particular rights for the sake of the higher unity, the central government,” argued the Herbartian Frank McMurry, this curriculum would show the importance of everything’s being part of a larger whole. Several Herbartians proposed that literature should be the center of the curriculum, arguing that texts like Robinson Crusoe or Hiawatha could serve as a base camp for students’ explorations of history, geography, and other subjects.

John Dewey accused the Herbartians of trying to stage-manage an inauthentic kind of student engagement, but their influence was largely eclipsed by a group whose technocratic version of coordination did not even pay lip service to individual self-activity: the social efficiency educators. Thinkers like Massachusetts education commissioner David Snedden argued that “it is for sociology to answer endless questions as to what is ‘the good community life,’” for politicians to faithfully execute sociologists’ ideas, and for citizens merely to select “efficient and honest” officials for the job. Snedden saw no place for art in public schools, though other social efficiency educators, like the University of Chicago professor Franklin Bobbitt, praised art as the spoonful of sugar that helped students digest data. Bobbitt favored works that gave students vicarious access to faraway facts, such as a novel about Laplanders that could help students learn anthropology.

Franz Cizek’s child art pieces (something made by a child under his supervision). Although he helped them create works whose technical difficulties would normally be beyond them, he tried to preserve what he saw as the unique artistic sensibility of young children.

The corporate philanthropies that shaped Southern black schooling , especially the General Education Board, adopted the business-friendly philosophy of social efficiency. Working both within and against the constraints they imposed, Booker T. Washington developed a pedagogy in which literature and art were permissible only if they were directly related to vocational training for low-status work. W.E.B. Du Bois famously objected, calling for an aesthetic education that would develop black youths’ critical social consciousness, but Washington largely prevailed in the public schools.

Between the world wars, new approaches to arts education emphasized experimentation rather than order. Social reconstructionism, which focused on cooperatively reforming society, arose in the change-hungry 1930s. In a social reconstructionist art program, students made art that improved their social environment, by designing landscapes, decorating shop windows, and creating labels for local products. Another approach, dating from the 1920s, was expressivist. Drawing on pop Freudianism and the Greenwich Village artworld, it emphasized the externalization of private, inner feelings. The rationale for this approach was largely therapeutic, but it also had an anti-totalitarian politics. Franz Cizek and Viktor Lowenfeld, its two leading proponents, were both Viennese emigrants who saw expressivist art education as an inoculation against fascism.

With the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, as the US appeared to be falling behind in the space race, calls mounted to overhaul the public schools in the interests of economic and military competition with the Soviet Union, downplaying social and psychological goals in favor of academic essentials. Cold Warriors considered replacing the “comprehensive” high school, which offers liberal education to all students, with a European style dual-track system giving intense academic training to an elite and vocational training to the majority. Harvard president James B. Conant, however, made a forceful argument for widespread arts education as a Cold War resource. Conant believed in a fusion of specialized education, which created wealth and knowledge, with general (i.e., liberal) education, which ensured that society worked toward common goals based on a common culture. Associating specialism with competition and general education with cooperation, he called for a meritocratic workplace within a solidaristic society. Conant saw artists as another species of competitive specialist, vying to create “warranted interpretation[s] of man’s emotional experiences,” with the winners becoming part of the canon of general education, where “minds most deeply and essentially meet” to forge “imaginative understanding of things in common.” All American students, he argued, should study works that unite them to a shared past and a shared future.

Conant’s call for a common culture left open the question of just what this culture was. Educators sympathetic with 1960s social movements sought curricula that openly challenged institutional oppression, but met strong resistance from the conservative movement, which responded with activist takeovers of local boards of education. Left-wing educators regrouped around multiculturalism, which affirmed the dignity of minorities without explicitly criticizing the status quo. Meanwhile, corporate philanthropists at the Getty Foundation championed a new approach called discipline based arts education (DBAE), which sidestepped the culture wars by defining art education as teaching the standards of technical competence upheld by the professional artworld. This emphasis on technical skills was shared by the accountability movement, whose rise was signaled by the 1983 federal commission report “A Nation at Risk.” “A Nation at Risk,” though, recalled the Sputnik era in calling for a return to essential academic skills; it did not recommend any study of art at all. Today’s Common Core standards, an outgrowth of the accountability movement, initially did not cover visual arts, and their literature standards focus on reading and writing skills rather than the contents or aesthetic qualities of the texts. Promoters of the standards explain that they are only a baseline on which schools should build, but critics charge that, since keeping up with accountability measures has become the sole focus of many poorer schools, if poor children are to receive any art education at all it must be codified in the standards.

Jesse Raber teaches English at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His current book project examines the influence of educational reformers on novelists in the Progressive Era.