The Lost Generations of Arts Education

Posted by Ken Busby, Mar 15, 2011 4 comments

To understand where we are in terms of arts education today, we need to look back forty years, to 1971.

We’ve now lost two generations of Americans who, prior to the 1970s, would have received quality arts instruction in elementary school.

What that means is that many of today’s business leaders and elected officials don’t realize what they missed out on – and consequently don’t understand the important role the arts play in educating young people.

All this makes our jobs as arts educators and administrators even that much more challenging.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this equation is that when we make our case for public funding of the arts, the minute we say the word “art,” there is an automatic shut down.

The legislators or business leaders whom we are addressing simply dismisses us as a fringe element of society who simply doesn’t understand the important issues that they are addressing – healthcare, national security, welfare, literacy, etc.

If we can garner two minutes of their time, we quickly site statistics that demonstrate that through a proper arts education:  teen violence and teen pregnancy go down, literacy rates improve, graduation rates go up, college attendance rates go up, work ethic improves, and volunteerism increases. If we have gotten this far in our conversation, the people we are addressing usually say that they really didn’t know these facts. There’s our opportunity!

We acknowledge that the United States (or even our home state) is facing major challenges – and we suggest that the arts might be a truly cost-effective vehicle to address and alleviate many of society’s ills, if we would just give them a chance.

We can pose questions like:  “would you rather build more prisons or have more art and music teachers in the classroom?”

We can remind them that in this country we spend, on average, $9,000 a year to educate a child; and $32,000 a year to house a prisoner. Which one makes more economic, and even more importantly, more “social” sense? If we can keep school children from becoming inmates as adults, haven’t we “saved” this country in more ways than one?

It’s difficult to argue with facts and statistics, when they are backed up with solid research like we have in the arts. But still, if the key individuals that make decisions about funding the arts didn’t enjoy an upbringing rich in art and music, they won’t necessarily have that passion or drive to provide something that they seem to have done fine without.

We have to continue to make the case, day in and day out, that the arts matter to society, that they enrich and empower us as a nation, and that with the arts, there is no limit to what we as a people can accomplish.

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, once commented, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

When we have a large segment of society that is ignorant of the arts and the power they have to transform and enlighten, simply because they themselves were never systematically exposed to them, it’s understandable why we are having to fight for funding today.

What we as arts educators and arts administers must never lose sight of, however, is that ultimately our diligence will pay off.

Over time, as we continue to make our case for the arts, and as we work with school districts to put the arts on equal footing with academics and athletics, we will again develop a well-rounded citizenry.

It took us forty years to get in the shape we are today. We can’t expect to get back to where we were overnight.

4 responses for The Lost Generations of Arts Education


March 15, 2011 at 3:56 pm

That's correct, Bob. This is a broad statement that reflects funding cuts that began at the federal level in earnest in the 1970s. I'm not saying that no child in elementary school received any arts education over the past forty years. I'm saying that arts education was reduced greatly or cut entirely from many schools across the country during this time.

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Bob Morrison says
March 15, 2011 at 11:42 am

Hi Ken,

Can you please tell us what data you are using to support your opening comment about two lost generations? Do you mean that two generations of elementary students (since 1970) did not have arts education in schools?

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March 29, 2011 at 4:35 pm

As an arts fundraiser I to would like a handout of your stats and where you foun them. Thanks.

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Karen Gale says
March 27, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I am an arts educator and would love a one sheet handout of your statistics that I could pass out to teachers, administrators, businesses and legislators. It would help make this an ongoing conversation and empower teachers with vocabulary to stand up for what they need in the classroom.

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