May 24, 2021 - No. 48

The Subversion of Arts Authority and Funding in Education

Arts Education Is a Must!

It is a mysterious question, if you have a bean counter's mind: "Why do the arts matter at all?" Perhaps you think no one would miss the arts if you subvert arts authority and funding in education. If so, you will be surprised to learn that large numbers of Canadian workers depend for economic subsistence on the arts: on literature; poetry, novel and short story writing; music; drama; theatre arts; design, lighting, and sound technologies; dance; film, and on visual art: architecture, industrial design, animation, photography, illustration, printmaking, drawing, painting, and sculpture.

In June 2016, the website Canadian Art published some economic facts concerning the arts and the economy taken from a bulletin from Hill Strategies: "...the estimated direct economic impact of Canada's culture industries (also known as value added or gross domestic product) was $61.7 billion in 2014, or 3.3 percent of the country's GDP.

"Nationally, the bulletin says, the GDP of culture industries is much larger than the value added of agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting ($29 billion); accommodation and food services ($38 billion); and utilities ($43 billion).

"Hill Strategies also notes that estimates of the direct economic impact of culture ($61.7 billion) is 10 times larger than that of sports ($6.1 billion). Similarly, the jobs estimate in the culture sector (700,100) is almost seven times larger than the estimate for the sports sector (103,700). (The jobs figures include full-time and part-time jobs, while part-year employment is included on a pro-rated basis.) All of Hill Strategies' findings are based on Statistics Canada's Provincial and Territorial Culture Indicators, 2010 to 2014."

Creativity has become a trait required in many jobs, high-tech or not. But the real reason why art matters has exposed itself during this pandemic when real life encounters with art have been impossible: it is due to the human need to celebrate our collective and individual humanity, our need for human-to-human connection, and for examination of solutions to urgent human-to-nature problems. It is about the heart, human aspiration, saving the environment. How can we build a better world?

Since creativity can be nurtured and developed with proper education, the minimum aim of any school arts curriculum adequate to the age must be to bring the youth up to the present day in visual literacy and technique, in feeling for the cultural achievements of humanity. It must imbue them with the conceptual ability and heartfelt ambition to advance humanity's cultural wealth.

The ongoing outcry from multiple quarters in Alberta over the proposed new K-6 curriculum delivered by Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party (UCP) government is a sign something has gone dreadfully wrong.

From the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA), to the Lethbridge Herald; Alberta Native News; the Red Deer Urban Aboriginal Voices Society; the Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment; the Alberta New Democratic Party; the organization We're Together Ending Poverty; to tens of thousands of individual commentators, dismay, outrage, fear and anger prevail over the UCP curriculum. Dr. Carla Peck, professor of Education, Social Studies and Pedagogy at the University of Alberta, calls the Social Studies section "Repulsive, Regressive and Racist." At last count 56 school boards in the province, representing 93 per cent of students, are refusing to pilot it. The ATA is calling for its complete withdrawal, and there is very broad support for this stand.

People wish their children to thrive in school. This curriculum will make learning difficult for most, impossible for many. Why? It ignores best educational practice of fitting stages of learning to childhood development, each stage building upon the previous towards an age and developmentally appropriate learning. This program will take the horse to water, but will not get him to drink.

Since my personal area of expertise is visual art and art education, I am taking an informed look at that section of the draft K-6 (elementary) curriculum where art is a compulsory subject. Both how to produce art and how art is a social testimony unique to its own historic era are important questions a curriculum must answer.

Groups of art teachers, consultants, and supervisors working together in the early 1980s produced a well-packed, comprehensive Alberta art curriculum for elementary and secondary levels. UCP "experts" have picked over this curriculum to "coldly furnish forth the wedding tables" with their own hasty dish. That is, this UCP elementary program, pompously referred to as "foundational principles," mishmashes a pitiful few of the ideas and methods considered critical in the 1980s. Leftovers, reheated. Without a plan. With nothing new or relevant to current issues. Heavy on abstract terminology, unsuited to developmental levels of elementary students, dreadfully lacking in coherence, treating Indigenous Nations' thought material as irrelevant -- both as concerns their own culture and on their relations with the dominant and dominating culture.

This curriculum defeats the pull of curiosity, the pleasure of discovery, the natural drive to fairness. Experiencing repeated disinterest, a child will soon conclude arts education is not for her or him. This is the fear of parents, whoever loves a child, that the UCP approach will kill the joy of making art, will make the child hate it.

Drawing, painting, beading, modeling, carving, building, for the simple joy of doing it is not mentioned. The aim to improve in technique through guided practice is not mentioned. The proper use of materials is not mentioned. Have they mentioned the issue of having a teacher properly art educated as critical?

Art Literacy Through Art Encounters

The '80s curriculum mandated "encounters" with artworks from history linked to concepts at every level of teaching. By observing well-known pieces, students practice using the vocabulary of art to figure out what is going on. Why have people preserved and made the object famous?

Students primarily interested in making art will observe such details as the type of paint stroke, the tints, shades, values of the colours, the paint thickness, the surface quality, whether a glaze can be detected. Students interested in philosophy will observe the connections between the thought of a certain period and the style of that period's art. If social history is their interest, they will take note of key events providing the topic for important works.

A great deal of abstraction of human history can be brought to life through the artworks of any period: sculptures, mural and easel paintings, films, etc. Thus the art teacher requires a full acquaintance with social history, the underlying philosophies prevalent, the reasons why change happens. Humans keep aspiring to a better world! For this wealth of human cultural labour to make sense and be of use to the teacher and the student, a curriculum must set it out coherently, sequentially, rationally.

Unfortunately, such structure is lacking in UCP thought. The desire to cement the status quo of cartel party authority to run society on behalf of the wealthiest oligopolists drives absurdities of hypocritical moralism, pious wishes for truth and goodness combined with absurdly chaotic, inappropriate choices of art concepts and encounters. Hard to disagree with ATA observation: "Government drops new K-6 curriculum, draws fire from all sides. THUD!"

(Photos: WF, ATA)

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