The discussion of the role of the arts in public education has become virtually lost in light of the school closings due to the global pandemic. Many of our scholars find their greatest joy in those moments when they are able to freely create in art and music classrooms. Art and education can be seen as twins, born from the same womb. In the Yoruba tradition, the name “Kehinde” means “the second born of the twins”. The second born twin is considered the elder twin. The first twin, Taiwo, emerges into the world, determining whether the conditions are right to be born. Only then is Kehinde birthed.
Education is Taiwo.
The arts are Kehinde.
In May of 2016, my family took the escalator to the featured exhibit floor of the Seattle Art Museum to view the exhibit of Kehinde Wiley. An artist who describes himself as a descendant in art history’s portrait painting tradition, his works place Black men and women in heroic and aristocratic scenes, drawing inspiration from the Western tradition of portraiture with a notable celebration of African features. His palette and technique are drawn from the wellspring of classical paintings of noblemen and royalty, noting that his goal is “to be able to paint illusionistically and master the technical aspects, but then to be able to fertilize that with great ideas.” His works accomplish what great art and music have always done: force us to confront socio-political contradictions and issues of race, gender and power.
Four years after visiting Wiley’s exhibit in Seattle, the art teacher at our metro-Atlanta school introduced our elementary scholars to the works of Kehinde Wiley, tasking them with creating their own self-portraits inspired by his works. It was our effort to create a culturally responsive space for our scholars to experience the works of a contemporary artist and to grapple with the task of reconceptualizing the past in a way that asserts new ideas upon it. Walter Benjamin once wrote, “In every era the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from a conformist that is about to overpower it.” The catalysts of changing the institutional forces working to devalue the arts in our schools are the educators and leaders who understand the intellectual complexity of creating art and the implications for fostering greater creativity in our schools.
We find a similar duality in Hip-Hop culture as artists grapple with its legacy of social change, authenticity and lyricism, along with the missteps, materialism and misogyny. Lyric Jones represents a countercurrent of contemporary artists who strive to create Hip-Hop compositions in a way that honors the tradition. Her most recent album, Closer Than They Appear, gazes into Hip-Hop’s rearview mirror while steadily moving the culture forward with tracks like “Rock On” and “Cruisin”. Like Kehinde Wiley, she too, stands in a lyrical line of descendants that includes Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Big Daddy Kane, Souls of Mischief, Lauryn Hill and Little Brother. Jones captures the essence of this in her song “Rock On” where she confesses:
“I kept tally
Of every small to big victory
Even when Hip Hop grew more contradictory
Still was at the pep rally
Cause I marvel at the history”
Lyric Jones’ work epitomizes where the arts, education, culture and context converge. She references her joint enrollment and experiences in summer programs at the Berklee College of Music in her hometown of Boston as instrumental in her development as an artist. She possesses a transcendent level of skill, engaging in production, singing, songwriting, and drumming. She IS the culture embodied. What is most significant for the future of the culture is the fact that she is also an educator at the Musicians Institute’s College of Contemporary Music.
In our mission to create schools that leverage the arts to unleash the genius we see in both Wiley and Jones, we must first reassess what it means to teach, what is taught, and what is valued in schools in the frantic “race to the top”. I acknowledge that what happens in the classrooms, whether in person or virtual, is most critical. But I would suggest that we start our assessment of the relationship between the arts and education at the front doors of our schools. The lobby of a school tells the story of a school. Too often the visual cues of the vestibules of our schools are overlooked. They are indicative of what is valued in a space. Here we discover, long before our interaction with its citizenry, whether athletics, academics, alumni or the arts are held in high regard. The critical thinking skills and differentiation we espouse as we discuss raising student achievement in the core content areas is not the same brush used to paint the arts in our schools. The arts are currently underfunded in our schools and relegated to second-class status in relation to other content areas. The band and string orchestra teachers at my school must serve multiple schools rather than building deep relationships with a group of students and families at one school. This is a problem that must be addressed at the federal level of education. We’ve arrived at this point in public education after a series of education reform efforts that included measurements of progress in specific subjects, causing administrators and policymakers to trim budgets and streamline their offerings to align with what was measurable on standardized tests.
Education must confront its own contradictions. Blooms Taxonomy was revised in 2001 by a consortium of psychologists, curriculum theorists, and educational researchers. It illustrates the cognitive processes and the continuum of complexity of tasks from ‘remember’ to ‘create’. According to Blooms, ‘create’ represents the highest form of cognitive activity. This is where we find students generating a log of activities, assembling a team of experts, designing a project workflow, or developing a learning portfolio. Elliot Eisner, in a 1969 article entitled “What the Arts Taught Me About Education”, suggests that the complexity of painting “requires the exercise of the mind…and the process of perceiving the subtleties of a work of art is as much of an inquiry as the design of an experiment in chemistry.”
We are called upon to widen our conceptualization of what it means to be smart. Reconstruction of this concept necessitates the dismantling of the notion that education, at its core, is limited to the importation of that which can be measured by standardized tests. Dismantling this requires an examination of the core of university programs that prepare our teachers and our teacher leaders.
Audre Lorde, in her critique of feminists during her time once wrote “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Her quote reminds us that reforming institutions from within can be a challenging undertaking. To be employed within, and at times bound by the the bureaucracy of public education, yet possessing a keen knowledge of its ongoing toxicity and disservice to our young people who are predominantly Black, and Brown is both an invocation to self-determination and an invitation to the dance between compliance and creativity. Elliot Eisner, in looking back on his experiences as a student and the sacredness of the visual arts during his elementary years, describes the visual arts as a source of ‘salvation’ from the drudgery of diagramming sentences in English grammar classes.
As educators, we most often focus our professional expertise on how the context of schooling transforms scholars. The context of schooling also transforms those of us working in schools, peeling away layers of lingo, acronyms, and new initiatives. Leaving us alone in our classrooms engaged in our own personal quests to impact the lives of our scholars. We become more connected with our sacred selves. As Eisner describes his first experiences teaching art in Chicago Public Schools, he formulates an intricate mosaic bound together by a deep commitment to both art and education. He suggests that the context and the content have transformative potentiality, writing:
“Chicago also provided the theoretical tools and the intellectual climate that I needed; much of it was like my life as a child at home; ideas were prized almost for their own sake. Analysis, debate, and intellect had a happy marriage.”Elliot Eisner
Eisner’s pericope on the context of his own transformative experience with art and education is much like my own experience as a school leader intent on exploring the voids that exist between the arts and core content courses.
As I first walked into the metro-Atlanta school I had been chosen to lead as principal, I looked intently at the hallways and what adorned its walls. I wanted to get an understanding of the culture of the school and the community through what was posted. It was April, yet some of the work posted was dated from November of the previous year. Framed artwork was hanging in many locations throughout the building, honoring the legacy of African-American history and culture. I wondered why the energy, creativity, and excitement of the hundreds of students of the school wasn’t more prominently displayed around the campus. Three years later, our halls are adorned with art created by scholars in class. Hallway displays include project-based learning and student writings. We have become much more intentional about presenting scholars with complex tasks to broaden their own sense of self-efficacy. Eisner challenges the prevailing culture of public education, writing, “educational practice does not display its highest virtues in uniformity, but in nurturing productive diversity.” There is complexity in a musical score or in sixteen bars of rap lyrics. There is intellect and critical thinking at the forefront of a painting. There is genius in the choreography that accompanies a Jazz composition. As a school leader, I’m interested in finding ways to initiate that sense of “salvation” Eisner describes for those students who have developed a dread for other content areas. The city of Atlanta has become the nexus of an African-American Renaissance where artistic virtuosity emerges from every corner of the city. It is a place where one can walk in the footsteps of W.E.B. DuBois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community artists and activists are found leaving indelible marks on the city through their work in schools and on murals. We now have the opportunity to re-envision schools as spaces where the arts are repositioned in the instructional hierarchy. Instead of the arts standing in the periphery, let’s explore how the arts can sit at the center of all we do in our schools.
Soundtrack: Rock On by Lyric Jones