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Arts and Education

Posted by Robert McGregor on


On the beach below our home is this hut built by children after stormy weather some weeks ago.


Building structures is natural, as is digging trenches and tunnels, damming creeks and making tracks for toy vehicles.

Our forefathers did an amazing amount of work building railway lines and locomotives, creating roads and dams, all of which we take for granted. In fact we’ve moved on now to inhibiting these natural urges to build shape and create, replacing them with computers, books, students sitting at desks and regular tests. We wonder why boys have lost interest and drive, and why we have a shortage of trades people and a surplus of people with degrees. Using our hands to create things is not as valued as using them on a keyboard, so we’ve structured incomes accordingly.

Most young children, before going to school, draw with crayons on walls, with lipstick on anything, with chalk or burnt sticks on concrete paths and with driftwood on sandy beaches. Mark-making and drawing is instinctive and fun.

On arrival at school they are taught that art is for those with some special talent but using abstract symbols to create words we can read and using mathematical symbols is something we can all learn to do. Shall I repeat that?

I have witnessed children building with blocks and other materials being told to destroy/ dismantle their structures and place the pieces in the box while those who have written something were asked to show and talk about theirs. It is made obvious that building things is less valuable that writing something, however trivial.

Rather than make these natural activities that children enjoy and are interested in, the starting point from which we extend action and ideas, we limit them to small amounts of time and wonder why students don’t get excited about our programmes. This is particularly so with boys. Putting more money into solving this new under-achieving-boy problem will not fix anything. Changing the programme will.

An approach to art activities that encourages original ideas to grow, be adapted, and maybe even discarded entirely, differs greatly from the idea that objectives should be set and adhered to slavishly, failure resulting when these are not achieved.
The kind of people that benefit society are those who enjoy a task and wish to see it through to a great conclusion, people who find new ways and create improvements.

Classrooms in which the arts have a major place are exciting classrooms where children like to be. On the other hand classrooms that are devoid of artistic activities are cold, uninspiring places.
Why is this?

1 The ARTS focus on personal interpretation of experiences. They add the HUMAN DIMENSION to understanding.

Studies in Earth Science might lead to knowledge of the structure, forms and origins of volcanoes, their location, different kinds of volcanic activity and of the rocks produced by volcanic action.
Statistical information concerning the location of active volcanoes, (about 62% of which occur along the margins of the Pacific Ocean) or data on their impact on human life in various centuries give other perspectives on volcanic activity, however the feeling that envelopes us when we see the cloud from Ruapehu billowing over our heads and feel the ground shuddering beneath our feet is also part of the truth about volcanoes and volcanic activity.

In the same way, children may learn scientific explanations of electrical storms: how lightning is caused, how heated air forms a compression wave and the reason for thunder, time lapses and the speed of sound.
This scientific knowledge is part of the story of storms. Another part of the story is
felt when children stand in the driving rain, lightning flashes turning night into spasms of day and thunder cracking their skulls and rumbling through their stomachs.

Feelings help us go beyond facts to a more personal experience of reality. The Arts deal with personal meaning; music may convey a feeling of sadness or of impending danger, a film actor may bring tears to our eyes and a painting may bring feelings of horror or wonderment.

Science and arts concern themselves with different aspects of reality. Understanding is a composite of different viewpoints; it results from a variety of ways of knowing.

Schools must recognise that children's sensory impressions and feelings are an integral part of their comprehension. Not only the cognitive processes of observation, recognition, calculation and deduction are valuable, the sensory processes of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are also of importance in our knowledge, understanding and appreciation of our world. Schools that ignore the interpretation of feelings and emphasise only factual, easily measurable aspects, are cold and uncivilised places.

The primary function of the arts is not to impart or gain information. Their purpose is to give meaning and insight and allow personal interpretations and expressions of experiences.

2 Participation in the Arts provide natural and enjoyable experiences.

We do many of the activities that we most value, for the sheer ENJOYMENT and PLEASURE of doing them.

We don't do them for money, fame, or because we have to or should do; we do them just because we want to. We enjoy them, we can become addicted to them. We do them in our own time and we do them, not because they are good for us, (they probably are), but because that's the way we like to spend our time.

Recently while on Australia’s Gold Coast I attended the Broadbeach Blues festival; children without exception and with no encouragement, moved to the rhythm of the music. It is as natural as scribbling on the wall or doodling while in a lecture or staff- meeting.

These things we really value are most often outside our work, yet oddly we sometimes claim, or behave as if education is for future work or careers, that the curriculum should in some way be aimed at supporting the economy for the good of the country and all that. As laudable as this might be (in the eyes of some), if other things are so important in our own lives, should we not perhaps give them serious consideration in education?

Chess players, musicians, potters, painters, printmakers, knitters, gardeners, golfers, marathon runners, vintage car re-builders, rally drivers, swimmers and cyclists, bowlers, carvers, cricketers, model-makers and lovers become addicted to the activity. Some of course become addicted to amassing money or acquiring possessions, gambling, drugs or alcohol consumption. This should not detract from the value of addictions. Total involvement, absorption and continual desire to be working or playing are the indicators of addiction.

3 Developing desirable addictions might be contemplated when setting Educational aims.

Chess players study openings, end-game theory and the games of Masters, Gardeners read information on pest control, pruning and seasonal activity. Runners read articles on maximal oxygen uptake, anaerobic training schedules and fast-twitch fibres.

Whatever our addictions, we orient reflexively toward them and things associated with them: Golfers look in sports shops, cyclists notice every training cyclist and any radical bike and addicted Romance-readers spend hours in bookshops.

The ARTS are valuable because participating is EXCITING & ADDICTIVE.

4 The Arts focus on aesthetic qualities.
Attention to aesthetic qualities make the arts unique within the curriculum.

The owner sees the oxidisation on the side of the ship as a cancer needing attention, as a cost or a tax deductible expense. The sandblaster sees an opportunity for work and income; the paint supplier thinks of his stock of anti-corrosive metal primer — quantities, discounts and profit margins. Individual responses are coloured by attitudes to, and relationships with an object. The initial visual experience is the same despite their orientation; all can still appreciate the aesthetic qualities of rust, the orange and red colours, patterns and textures.

We can appreciate the sound of the sea lapping against the steel side of the ship or the alliteration of this sibilant sentence. We can enjoy the sunset, cloud formations and the shadows cast by winter trees. As teachers, we are responsible in part for children's ability to enjoy increasingly finer nuances of colour, texture, tone, sound, rhythm, movement; aesthetic experience is within the domain of arts education.

Our knowledge of the world around us comes from our five senses.
Greater development of these and appreciation of finer di
fferences and nuances can only enhance our life experiences.
Dance, film, literature, music and visual art all allow us aesthetic experiences which we value intrinsically; they are experiences that we value for themselves — because they are aesthetic. They need no other justification. Aesthetic perception of (for example) a painting, focuses on its colours, shapes, textures, patterns and tonal values. We can enjoy it in a purely aesthetic way despite its subject matter.

Last night I sat looking out at Pilot Bay and felt a sudden urge to make a drawing of the up-turned dinghies — dark shadows underneath — the date palm with its patterned trunk and the misty shape of Tauranga across the water. I could almost feel in anticipation the pencil gripping on the toothed paper. Actually I drew on the back of a large envelope — an entirely different tactile experience. The tactile dimension is a very important one when working with an art medium. The feel of clay on a pottery wheel, the feel of resistance and sight of the smooth groove cut by a sharp chisel, the feeling inside when four voices harmonise perfectly and there seems to be a fifth voice are aesthetic experiences as enjoyable as making mud pies and playing in water. Much of the pleasure in artistic pursuits is derived from the aesthetic experiences inherent in the activity itself. This manipulation of aesthetic properties is important in our development; an enrichment of our lives that is available to us through the arts.

5 The Arts offer opportunity for future employment

There are a wide range of employment opportunities available to those who pursue the Arts.
These include among many others, animation, architecture, cartooning, education, fashion, industrial design, painting, photography, prop and set design and making; being a sound engineer, soloist, orchestra conductor, drummer, cellist, violinist, pianist, or a saxophonist in a jazz band, one might play harmonica in a blues band, sing as a pop-star, or work in product design, web design, graphic design, interior design, automotive, marine, jewellery, layout, urban, furniture and textile design, museum exhibit design; or create logos, work at screen-printing or become a gallery owner, film producer, director, make-up artist, wardrobe designer, editor, voice-over artist, theatre director, stage manager, composer, actor or create film scores as a musician. Why not consider being an accessory designer, dressmaker, tailor, shoe designer, ceramic artist, sculptor, glass blower, portrait artist; or become a tattooist, air brushing gra
ffiti artist, photographer for advertising, fashion, journalism, weddings and wildlife.

One may pursue life in Opera, or seek to become a ventriloquist, disc jockey or comedian Or you could forget these and pursue accountancy where there are definitely right and wrong answers and creative accounting is frowned upon.

6 The Arts provide access to the world's cultures.

Much of the heritage left us by past societies and individuals is found in the world of the Arts: music, dance, theatre, architecture, fashion, paintings, sculpture, stories or poetry. When these artistic forms are put into context, discussed and explained, students will understand that they reflect the aesthetics, beliefs and social structure of that particular society.

Aesthetic qualities are culturally determined. Advertisers, script writers and authors of magazine articles inform on what is beautiful, what is acceptable, what smells good, tastes good, sounds and looks good and what doesn't.
To appreciate the di
fferent aesthetics of different cultures, we need to taste their preferred food flavours, smell the smells, listen to the music, watch or participate in their dance and look at their artworks. Appreciation of the aesthetic preferences of a culture provides another dimension in understanding and appreciating people.

"... education is not entirely, nor even mainly, an affair of book learning, for that is only the education of one part of our nature — the part of the mind that deals with concepts and abstractions. In the child who is not yet mature enough to think by these short-cut methods, it should be largely an education of the senses — the senses of sight, touch and hearing; in one word, the education of the sensibility."

Herbert Read "To Hell with Culture"



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