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excerpt: “You Want Me to Teach What?!? A Short, Highly Critical Vocabulary of Edu-speak Jargon”

What we have to offer is expertise in and enthusiasm for an arts medium.  But we often face pressures to abandon exactly those things that make us useful as teaching artists. Many of the people and organizations that hire us do not think it is enough to teach people to make their own art. In many contexts in which teaching artists work, especially public schools, the arts are increasingly seen as a means to an end. Often the goals of teaching artist work are defined by non-teaching artists in educational or psychological jargon.  For a teaching artist who is new to working in public schools or for large arts education organizations it can often seem as if there is some special, mysterious body of theory and practice and a whole language of arts education to which he or she is uninitiated.  It can be intimidating, confusing and alienating.  Instead of being asked what and how you teach in your medium you may be asked to teach things that you have never even heard of.  There will be many people who disagree with what we are about to say, some very smart people who do very important work in arts education. But we want to suggest that we can choose to not swallow these often ill-defined priorities that often have little to do with teaching a medium, and sometimes conflict with such teaching. If we do make such priorities our own we risk negating exactly what is educative, liberating and fun about art making, and exactly what draws students to it.

 We want you to teach the kids ________.  Here’s a short list of a few of the things that often appear in the blank, along with some critical translations:

Creativity

 There’s apparently a whole industry devoted to the study of “creativity.”  The industry encompasses everything from self-help authors to areas of cognitive and neurological research.  Some of the discussions around creativity seem interesting and maybe even useful.  Most seem facile and simplistic.  But where teaching artist work is concerned the idea of “creativity,” as a thing that can be taught is highly problematic.  The reason is that it’s increasingly presented as a substitute for putting art making at the center of the work.  Teaching artists are told that time and space for really learning a medium are secondary to “teaching students to think creatively.”  But if creativity exists as something discrete, it’s only in the context of creative work.  For teaching artist work, “creativity,” should mean that students are finding original solutions to creative problems in their art making.   So, where teaching artist work is concerned, for creative thinking to happen, original art making has to happen. 

 

Social Emotional Growth/Impulse Control/Cooperation/Collaboration etc.

Much of current elementary pedagogy (and increasingly high school pedagogy), especially in under-funded, race and class- segregated schools, focuses less and less on teaching actual stuff, and more and more on teaching behaviors. Many arts education advocates and organizations have correctly argued that art making can help people learn to work together well, can make people feel more interested in their lives and the world around them, and can lead to many different kinds of emotional insights.  But where this type of advocacy becomes the main reason behind teaching artist work it begins to displace teaching and work in the medium.  Students do not like working with us because we will teach them to behave in certain ways.  What could be more alienating and dehumanizing than being instructed to make art so you can become a “better person?”

 

21st Century Job Skills

This positively sinister term seems to have come into vogue over the last five years or so.  Generally it’s used by arts education advocates and policy makers to suggest some sort of link between artistic skills and “habits of mind” and the needs of corporate capitalism in the ostensibly new “global economy.” The vaguely argued or implied premise is that there is something about the current state of global capitalism that leads employers to seek out more creative or inspired workers.  In fact nothing could be further from the case.  It is precisely because there is less need than ever for skilled and semi-skilled workers that not only the arts, but serious academic content in science, math, history and English have been ripped out of the public schools and curricula are increasingly about following directions and processes.  The “Sputnik Crisis” of the late 50’s reflected a real need for more engineers, scientists and skilled production workers; the American economy of the 21st century is dominated by high degrees of automation and rationalization in production and service industries.  Computer-based “enterprise management systems” have brought about unheard of increases in worker productivity and corporate profits in industries as varied as computer manufacture and medical billing.  The unhappy, alienating truth is that what employers increasingly are people willing to follow directions reliably and consistently and a very, very few people to think “creatively” and decide what color the new cellphone model should be.*

So why then the prattle about “21st Century Job Skills?”  Well we can think of two reasons why this trope serves the needs of corporate employers.  The first is perhaps well illustrated by Starbucks’ claim that they like to hire artists and creative people.  From what we gather from friends who work there, Starbucks’ hopes that artists aren’t prone to organizing unions because they figure their highly exploitative service job is just a “day gig.”  And in fact some of the arts education advocacy prevalent around public education all but promises that the arts help train compliant, focused, and cheerful workers…which wouldn’t be such a bad claim if the companies seeking such workers paid a decent, union wage.

 The second reason companies like to be associated with “artists” and the arts is that it helps with brand appeal and marketing to certain desirable demographics—a veneer of “creativity” and artiness sells.

The real question is why are we, in arts education, echoing this sort of cynical, utilitarian crap?   Whatever the motives behind “21st Century Job Skills” advocacy it’s based on a premise that in our view is antithetical to art making and therefore to teaching artist work—that art making should be, first and foremost, to train students to serve someone else’s economic and political ends.  21st Century arts education advocacy in America has become far too focused on arguing that the arts are good for the corporate bottom line.  We teaching artists are well placed to blow that paradigm up.

 


 

*Hacker, A. “Where Will We Find the Jobs?” New York Review of Books. February 24th, 2011, 39-41.

Head, S. “They’re Micromanaging Your Every Move.”  New York Review of Books. August 16, 2007, 42-44).