The Arts as Part of the Core Curriculum: A Challenge to Music Educators

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Not so long ago a principal of a large high school in an eastern city was discussing with me the situation in his institution. The school is typical of those in cities on the eastern seaboard: a mixed student body with large ethnic strains within lower income groups, not sympathetic to quick integration. The immediate background for our conference was a day-time concert in the school auditorium given by the state's symphony orchestra, somewhat reduced in size. The students in general were bored and inattentive, although there was no vocal protest or unruly physical demonstration. The principal was so put out that he went to the microphone at the conclusion of the program and berated the students for their impolite and boorish attitude. In the subsequent conversation over coffee in the cafeteria, the principal bewailed the situation in his school and asked for suggestions as to what remedial action might be taken. It was obvious that there was a curricular imbalance which was short-changing the students, a condition not unlike that experienced by these same students in their early years in the grades: a preponderance of disciplines involving cognitive reactions and an almost complete lack of experience in areas of sensitive discrimination and personal creativity. During the conversation the principal revealed that in his school of over 2000 students there were 31 teachers engaged, full or part time, in instruction in English. He volunteered the opinion that a better educational result would be accomplished if some of the time spent in English were assigned to one or more of the arts. My response to this was immediate. Why not have a conference with fellow-principals in the city and/or state with the aim of revising the present curriculum? His reaction was one of agony at the thought of a probing curricular study. The same attitude has been observed when suggestions have been made that sweeping changes be effected in the colleges which train classroom teachers for the elementary and secondary levels. Evidently there is a widespread reluctance among educators to face up to one of the fundamental facets of education, namely, what shall be studied.

We in college music circles have provided evidence of this reluctance to give thought continually to matters of curriculum. Our own Society has put off one important means of dealing seriously with the question of what should be taught by not insisting on the maintenance of a standing Committee on Curriculum. More papers on curricular matters, presented in vigorous fashion, would strengthen our annual meetings.

It seems clear that the prospects for education in the immediate future are not exactly glowing. As one college president expressed it, "We used to say that we might not know precisely how to educate a student, but we had a pretty good idea what an educated person should be. Now we are not even sure of that." He could add that the decline in school population will result in lower college registrations and put extra pressure on already warped budgets. In other words, we cannot be so sure of our favorable positions in college music, despite whatever gains have been made on the basis of our successes as teachers, composers, performers, scholars, and administrators. We are already seeing the first results of reduced registrations and declining revenues. Younger faculty are likely to miss reappointment, and the places of senior colleagues will not be filled when vacancies occur. In secondary and elementary schools, more drastic action is already visible; not only have teachers been dismissed but top administrative posts such as Director of Music, Supervisor of Art, etc., have been deleted.

The reasons for the early raid on the arts have not been wholly financial. In some instances teachers have failed to change their offerings or methods to fit the needs of today's students. As one city administrator explained, "The music instructors seem to be doing exactly as they did 25 years ago. Some insist that they must give private lessons on instruments, reaching only three or four students in a morning; their justification is that only by this means can bands and orchestras be built, although these organizations are often noticeable by their absence." It is not surprising that these musicians were among the first to be relieved of duty. In the same city a middle school dance program has reached a large and enthusiastic number of students. The administrators say that they are encouraging this program, and they add rather plaintively that they wish the musicians would devise something equally effective.

Reference to the dance program points up a growing movement in the areas of theater, dance, and film to take over a portion of the school curriculum. More and more these disciplines are advancing as parts in a well rounded fine arts program. Music and art will no longer have complete domination as has been the case for fifty years or more. Since no one wishes to deprive students of the satisfactions found in these newer fields, the problem will be to fashion a curriculum which will accommodate the several arts—music, art, dance, theater, and film. The challenge will be greater in the schools because the time schedule is less flexible there than in the colleges. It would seem that no one of these subjects could have as much attention as is now given to music or art. Therefore, there is need for regular consultation among the teachers of all the arts in order to draw up plans for a mutually acceptable curriculum. Otherwise, as has often happened in the past, decisions as to the nature of artistic offerings and the time assigned them, will be made separately by administrators and curriculum committee members from the non-artistic faculties.

The reason for the age-long secondary position of the arts in the schools—earlier in the colleges—has been the prevailing conviction of educationists that only math, the sciences, and cognitive exercises generally are of primary importance in the development of students. This has led to curricula which train only parts of the mind, as someone has said, "only that part of an individual above the eyes." Even studies in English have been concerned with constructions, definitions, theories of criticism (on the college level) to the almost total exclusion of any regard for emotional power, personal expression, and aesthetic refinement. Insufficient experience in writing on the secondary level has nullified even the results of emphasis on grammar and construction in the English class; meanwhile, everyone laments the abysmal unpreparedness of too many students, both collegiate and secondary, to write simply and clearly as a means of every day communication. At the same time a short-sighted view of foreign languages, both contemporary and ancient, has cut off studies of this type, leaving most students unable to use a foreign tongue or enjoy the beauties and subtleties of its literature. In this, as in so many parts of the educational establishment, non-cultural, even non-educational factors have pushed in to sidetrack the building of a strong and balanced curriculum. It must be said, however, in all fairness, that faculties too often have been persuaded to reduce requirements on the ground that students should not be forced to tackle subjects regarded by them as irrelevant.

It sometimes seems that groups outside the schools are more concerned with educational progress in the arts than teachers and artists on the scene. Although not primarily educationally oriented, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities have initiated strongly propelled thrusts into schools and colleges which are receptive to innovative methods. Whatever the final evaluation of the "Arts in Education" project, to name only one example of the efforts of the Arts Endowment, the policy behind it was to aid the expansion of the arts in the schools, particularly in those communities where there are now marked curricular limitations. In fact the methods used involved artists or artistic groups in the town who are brought to the schools to strengthen whatever offerings might already exist.

A national organization dedicated to expansion of the arts in our schools and colleges is the American Council for the Arts in Education. It has existed for fifteen years or more and has a record of nation-wide activities in collecting data about, and spreading the philosophy of, a balanced curriculum. Its membership is organizational rather than individual, now including the Music Educators National Conference, College Music Society, College Art Associations, National Association of Schools of Art, American Theater Association, American Dance Guild, University Film Association, and many others. It has conducted conferences in a number of states, bringing together a cross section of the citizenry—school committee members, clergymen, legislators, union and blue collar workers, professional men and women, educators and parents. These meetings not only have acquainted the participants with widely differing views but convinced them of the need to give students—their own children—a broader educational experience than is now usually available. The Council has gathered valuable information on the many innovational projects operative in various sections of the country over the last twenty years, and it has broken paths that have reached ethnic groups, Afro-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese-Americans, American Indians, Mexican-Americans, and others. Its annual conference of several years ago held in Los Angeles highlighted successful presentations in all of the arts, each program scheduled in the city locality inhabited by the ethnic population which had found the music, art, or film relevant and moving. Unfortunately, the present redirection of foundation giving and the general reduction in funds has had a choking effect on the American Council. Its officers are more than ever busy in carrying on the Council's work, one feature of which is the formation of a national commission of distinguished persons to advocate publically the principles of the Council.

It would be pleasing to report that the constituent members of the Council have given maximum support to its efforts, but there has been a tendency to view the Council's aims as too far-reaching, if not impractical, and to adopt a policy of watchful waiting. One wishes that the member groups would avail themselves of the data on file, particularly the reports on education in the arts at specific locations, such as the University City (St. Louis) emphasis on the arts in the schools of that area, and make use of this information when curricular studies are in progress. Conferences bringing together representatives of teachers and supervisors in art, music, theater, dance, and film in states or counties could have practical results, facilitating exchange of views and the fashioning of more effective curricula in these fast moving times.

Persons active for a long time in education have recurring frustrations as they observe teachers and institutions going around the same circle, taking the same dubious actions which were proved unfruitful years ago. Perhaps most discouraging are the overlapping of efforts as similar organizations recruit individuals and raise funds for the same tasks, operating as though the parallel organization did not exist. This is obviously wasteful of time and resource as well as confusing to the public that both groups are trying to influence. It may be too soon to come to conclusions, but the recent emergence of "Alliance for the Arts" (based at the Kennedy Center) seems in many respects a very close copy of the American Council for the Arts in Education which has certainly done yeoman service for the arts in relation to the whole span of education. A principal aim of the Alliance is to bring performing groups from the schools to the Kennedy Center. I would be the last to discourage the efforts of worthy student musical, theatrical, dance, or other organizations, but the question is whether or not such a project is the most needed to forward the understanding of the arts among all of our millions of students. Especially when the arts generally are in grave financial difficulty both in the schools and in the community. What amazing results might be seen if all the groups in the country devoted to the arts would concentrate for five years on improvement of the arts curricula in the schools, especially that segment devised for the general student!

Potentially powerful sources of influence on the artistic climate in the schools are the state and community arts councils. These organizations in every state and in nearly every county and city comprehend the role of the school programs, curricular and extracurricular, in ensuring a viable and continuing artistic milieu. An orchestra, chorus, theater, ballet, or dance company, a film society or museum, can hardly expect to prosper in a city where the schools underrate the arts. In accord with this view, "Arts Rhode Island," the region's community council for the arts, has an Education Committee which aims to keep in touch with the schools of the state. As a part of this ongoing study, the Committee sent out (in 1974) a questionnaire to every school principal in the state, asking 15 questions, the responses to which would fill in gaps in the Committee's file of data. The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts gave support to the project. The Committee had expected to get information from the State Department of Education, but this arm of government, unhappily, had little to offer. It does not have records as to the number of teachers in specific areas, such as music, or data on courses, performing organizations, concerts, plays, and so on. Confronted with this situation, the Committee went ahead to formulate and send out its own questionnaire which, after a period of several months, was answered by a third of the total number of public, private, and parochial schools. A lengthy report with tabulations has now been prepared, but in an article of this kind only selected facts from it can be included—enough, however, to show directions and trends which apparently are not widely varying from those to be found in other states. There is no surprise in that portion of the data which reveals art and music the overwhelming leaders in all the schools insofar as the artistic subjects are concerned. Theater is beginning to find a place while dance and film are almost invisible. To those who felt sure that music, overall, had the largest representation in teachers and students, the survey indicated music as number two following art. When one looks at the work loads of the music and art teachers, it is apparent that the typical case is an overburdened individual covering many schools with time only for weekly, fortnightly, or monthly visits. This situation throws a heavy responsibility on the home room teacher who often has little background for, or confidence in, her ability to confront the arts disciplines. (This weak link in the chain of instruction has long been known, yet teacher training institutions still send out graduates who have had no experience in the arts. As in the case of the high school principal referred to earlier, the agony of trying to alter a curriculum is holding back necessary reforms in the colleges).

A shocking item in the report relating to nineteen high schools reveals that among the total of 26,000 students only 5.2 percent receive any regular instruction in any art. In a small state such as Rhode Island, nineteen high schools is a very good proportion of the total, certainly in excess of the one-third coverage of the questionnaire as a whole. Here is a statistic to arouse especially the interest of college music faculties. After all the years of music programs in the schools, a representative sampling of secondary institutions shows a striking example of some form of music and art boycott. Making allowances for a variety of explanations—the ever present assertion that college-bound students ought not to "waste time on music or art," the possibility that the work in music or other arts is non-existent or weak, or that time and money cannot be found for the arts—one is left with the unavoidable conclusion that the time for laissez-faire and blithe unconcern has long since passed and that college music people should band together along with teachers in the other arts to demand adequate programs on the secondary level. Also, they should agree to reevaluate and strengthen the curricula in the arts for the colleges in order that there may be in the future strong arts orientation for more than a minority of our students.

A very heartening aspect of the report has to do with the attitudes towards the arts of both students and parents. In almost all schools the principals (or their surrogates) stated that they would have the support of students and parents for the increase of arts offerings if added time and money were forthcoming. This might reflect reactions similar to those found in a New York state inquiry, where over 60 percent of the citizens reached said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to further the arts.

One remark of a middle school principal, although not typical, has been heard all too frequently. He stated that "our students and parents are not interested in the arts." The implication was that these views were a plausible explanation for neglect of the arts by the school. It might logically follow that Math, English, and Science were also not areas of student and parent interest and, therefore, the school could justify a curriculum limited to Physical Education, Civics, Home Economics, and Driver Training. Although it is doubtless an exaggeration, there are many persons in education who say that the principals, as a group, are unresponsive to the arts. If so, what conclusions may be drawn regarding the background provided teachers and administrators by Departments of Education in the colleges? Music faculties might focus more attention on the curricula now in force for the preparation of these public servants.

It is not fair or useful to inveigh solely against music as handled in the elementary and secondary schools. In the first place, it is obvious that much high quality work is being done in the schools, and that some schools have cooperated on forward-looking musical projects as well as broadly based programs involving all of the arts. One of the most recent of the latter has been Project Impact carried out in selected schools in five localities: Troy, Alabama; Columbus, Ohio; Glendale, California; Eugene, Oregon; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Not only were students in these communities led to enlivening creative efforts but non-arts teachers were actively engaged as were professionals in music and the related arts. The latter were present regularly to lead and guide the work in their field of competence. Of course special funding was available (only two years) but the results seem to have justified the expense. It is noteworthy that all students were included, not just those already experienced and motivated in some form of art. Of particular interest was the use of recordings in the elementary schools in Eugene, extra money to purchase recordings coming from the PTA. Mention is made of this seemingly commonplace example of music pedagogy because I have so often heard elementary and middle school instructors deny that recordings can reach the students. A much used phrase is "the kids won't listen." It is probably necessary to emphasize again the fact that kids from the grades and up into college are avid collectors of recordings, easily finding their favorites and idols. Why have we been brain-washed on the assumption that all young people must be performers? The purchase of record players and records will be a relatively inexpensive method of reaching many students, so why spend large sums on contrabassoons and horns when so few students are served? Further details on Project Impact are to be found in Gene C. Wenner's illuminating article in the January 1973 issue of the Music Educators Journal. If he presents only the rosy side of the evaluation, the profession should rejoice in what progress was made and push for the adoption of the many teaching devices which succeeded.

The revolutionary times in which we must live and the wide disillusionment with government, education, and human behavior need not discourage unduly those of us engaged in teaching. Changing times are favorable for reform in education, and we are key figures in the educational structure. In fact, we have a mandate to bring understanding of the arts to the general student population. The younger generation, probably as never before, is embracing the arts, stepping out ahead of us to grasp what is visible and audible, sometimes out of curiosity and, from our point of view, not always sufficiently discriminating. Nevertheless, as in the past, the young can be influenced if they are accorded respect and provided with opportunities, curricular and extracurricular to hear, see, learn, and partake. This type of language is trite, yet required if those who are in the arts education establishment hope to increase their clientele instead of going down with the first casualties of recession or depression.

If we are blinded by our current affluence as reflected in increasing college interest in music, we should try to see the complete span of education and detect the warning signs in elementary and secondary education, the foundation upon which we must stand. If, as at Brown University, the college orchestra, playing Brahms, Ives, and works of living composers, has to give two presentations of each program to accommodate the largely student audiences, the contrast with a majority of our schools, where only 5.2 percent of the students have any regular contact with any art, is soberingly challenging.1

The duty of college music as an entity is to reassess its position, to take advantage of the support it has among the young and of the general public's growing awareness of the arts, and to plan, practically and imaginatively, for the admittedly more difficult times ahead—a period calling for our maximum efforts whether the scene is the state-financed institution or our beleaguered private colleges. It should work at once for more entrance credits for the arts, or stronger approval within admissions policy where the old credit units are no longer in use. This is work to be done on one's own campus, but the effort should not stop there; the extra step should be taken to keep in touch with the schools, probably to a greater extent than is now the case, in order to underline the necessity for truly fundamental studies in the arts as an ingredient in a genuinely balanced education. This holds true, especially, when dealing with students who are not heading for careers in the arts or are not on their way to college. The latter group contains more than 50 percent of our future citizens.

An institution is at hand to assist in this campaign on a national basis, the already-mentioned American Council for the Arts in Education of which the College Music Society is a member. Centered in New York City, its President is Professor Norris Houghton, whose address is Division of Theater Arts, College at Purchase, S.U.N.Y., Purchase, New York 10577. It is not the province of this article to solicit specific service on the part of individual readers, but there is need for planned action in all sections of the country, hopefully by the various faculties in the arts as they combine their forces for maximum effectiveness. Equally important is the necessity for the college departments and schools of music to think ahead to the immediate future when funds will be in short supply while the need will be more than ever urgent to maintain strong, if somewhat less extensive, curricular programs. Without lowering standards in those courses offered, it may very well be wise to consult more closely with allied departments in order best to make use of declining resources in all the artistic areas. Collaboration and not damaging competition will be the order of the day. Curricular studies and planning will be more than ever a requirement regardless of the tendency of some faculty members and administrators to put off such boring labor. Again, the plea should be heeded to create a strong standing committee on the curriculum (give it another name if the word displeases) for the College Music Society as a whole. Such a board of experts would gather data from many institutions and meet from time to time with representatives of similar bodies within the national organizations devoted to college art, theater, dance and film. After all, these were among the aims of the American Council when it discussed the formation of the special project later entitled Arts/Worth. The College Music Society was the instigator of this movement.

In some schools and colleges there has been a tendency to view the presentation of Humanities courses as a means of satisfying the demand for curricular offerings in the arts. This idea, tempting to administrators, seems to solve a problem of overlapping disciplines by creating catch-all courses at a considerable reduction in cost of salaries and operation. Experience in the past (many mid-Western Colleges featured such courses several decades ago) has shown that such a policy leads to extreme superficiality whether at the college or the secondary level. Strong departments in each artistic subject must be protected even though financial limitations will be placed on all of them, possibly curtailing the number of courses and forcing the scheduling of some only in alternate years. The main challenge is to fashion a curricular system throughout the educational spectrum which will ensure a kind of artistic literacy among the general student body. This should be done not only because students will be damagingly one-sided without it but also because the arts stand a good chance of being painfully reduced or eliminated unless they reach a large majority of the nation's young people. It is to be hoped that members of the College Music Society will hear the call and exert the kind of cooperative leadership required if protective and basic reforms are to be adopted.


1It should be added that the attendance in more formal academic courses in music, ethnomusicology, theory, and performance is also increasing, while too many schools are still acting as though the colleges valued only the sciences, math, and language. Those interested in how we got where we are in education should read, or reread, the fascinating story of Dr. Francis Wayland's fight to add courses in science to the academic curriculum in the 1850s. Although a clergyman, Dr. Wayland, as President of Brown University, achieved a mighty victory when the sciences joined philosophy and the ancient languages in the Brown curriculum, leading the way for a more balanced educational experience for American college students.

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