Monday 9 December 2013

'Paideia': where education and culture meet

Field trip at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Photo: Stephen Ironside, taken from the site Education Next)
Lately, I've been thinking often of the results of the 2008 National Endowement for the Arts survey on cultural participation, which indicated that childhood arts education has a potentially stronger effect on arts attendance during adulthood than age or socioeconomic status.

I thought about this again after reading an article in the New York Times which presented a study at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art that aimed to evaluate the effects of field trips, their educational value. Among various other interesting things (related to the capacity for critical thinking, empathy, tolerance, interest in the arts – read details here), there were two that really drew my attention:

1. The benefits observed were significantly larger for students from minority groups, low income families and those residing in rural areas, many of them visiting an art museum for the first time.

2. Having been given the possibility to return to the museum (through the distribution of vouchers that had a code), students that had participated in the survey showed a bigger interest in coming back than students that hadn’t participated (more 18% than other students).

These studies were carried out in the US, but I don’t think the results would have been much different in what concerns our countries, so, we need to look at them carefully, as they reaffirm the importance of childhood arts education as a determinant factor in arts participation in adulthood, as well as the importance of the school and school visits to cultural venues as a means of promoting equal access to culture.

The school has always had a determinant role in bringing about contact with arts and culture. The result hasn’t always been the best (still isn’t). We have all had really boring experiences during school visits in cultural venues, either because of the lack of preparation on behalf od our teachers or the lack of quality in the offer (for example, unwelcoming and uncomfortable environments, a formatted speech that is quite inappropriate for the interests and specific needs of the students /spectators, etc.). Nevertheless, he also have memories from school visits that left us amazed, enthusiastic, inspired; visits that showed us new ways and, quite often, determined the decisions some of us made as to what we wished to do in our lives.

The role of school and school visits to cultural venues becomes even more determinant in the case of those students whose families do not provide them with certain opportunities, because of a lack of habit or means or knowledge. School visits are probably the only possibility certain children and teenagers have of entering a museum or theatre. What does this mean at a time when arts education is given less and less space in the school curriculum, in this and in other countries, and the cuts in funding increasingly limit the possibility of schools to oganize such visits?

This means that those children and young people whose families don’t provide them with certain opportunities (visits or artistic practices) are deprived of having access to an offer, an experience, that may contribute a lot for their cognitive and emotional development, overcoming barriers and limitations imposed by their socioeconomic status.

It means that children and young people in general have got a more and more limited training as future citizens that may be active, thinking, emotionally and intellectually rich.

It means that our society will be composed of citizens with less paideia (a greek word that I like a lot and that expresses the result of the joint action of education and culture).

One might think that, given the fact that schools have got little space for action, cultural institutions could try to reinforce their role. They could be the ones to go and meet the students at their schools. Actually, this wouln’t be something new. There are a number of mobile projects (like “the museum goes to the school” or “the theatre goes to the school”) that have aimed to serve this objective. Nevertheless, the current situation – a situation marked by severe cuts both in the cultural and educational sector – does not seem to be the right moment to intensify and multiply this kind of initiatives.  

So, where does this leave us? Is this a deadlock?

We cannot let this become a deadlock. And I say this although I haven’t got a concrete solution to propose at this moment. I can only suggest the natural, obvious, way: to recognize the seriousness of the situation and, rather than reacting with short-term actions, to plan and to establish the kind of partnerships that may allow us to resist and overcome governmental decisions that jeopardise the quality of the future of many generations. We owe it to our children. Especially to those for whom, if it’s not this way, there’s hardly going to be another. 

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