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Journal of Design Communication

Editor: Joan McLain-Kark jmkark@vt.edu
Issue 1
Fall 1998


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The Impact of the Fine and Design Arts in Higher Education

Paul Laseau
Ball State University
 


Editor's Note:  This paper was originally presented at the Thirtieth Anniversary Conference of the Association of Yeungnam University and Ball State University at Taegu, Korea- June 1998.
 

At a time when declining public support seems to question the value of the fine and design arts in contemporary society there are compelling reasons to believe that importance of arts education at the level of colleges and universities will increase not decrease. Observations about the nature and rate of changes in liberal arts education, the work environment and the basis of the economy suggest the growing need for the perspectives, theory, and methodologies that are features of arts programs from music or drama performance to architectural design.  Potential contributions of arts education include flexible and creative thinking, complex problem solving, holistic perspective, and dealing with the human/technology interface.

Over the past decade, the news media have frequently carried stories of reduction of classes, staff, or resources for fine and design arts programs in primary and secondary schools. There is a related concern of arts organizations about decreasing public support and less than desirable private support for the arts. However, in the same period, trends in higher education present a contrasting picture. Competition for entry to arts programs remains intense, and the 60 percent increase in graduates of visual and performing arts programs has dramatically outpaced the general trend for first professional degrees (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).  In my field of architectural education, schools produce enough graduates to replace the existing number of architectural practitioners in about ten years, and yet ten new schools of architecture have been established since 1988, bringing the total to over one hundred.

What do these seemingly contradictory trends portend? What is the future role of the arts in the social, technical, and economic life of the American society? What will be the role of arts in higher education? It would be presumptuous to attempt any comprehensive response to these questions, but it might be useful to identify some of the factors and emerging trends.

The Cultural Imperative

The Massey Commission Report (1951), which recommended the creation of the Canada Council for endowment of the arts and offered comprehensive research, analysis, and recommendations on Canada's cultural and educational life, made the case for the essential role of the arts in society. The authors noted that Winston Churchill, in the face of a pending invasion of England by German forces, rallied his countrymen by calling upon their duty to preserve the British culture rather than referring to British science or technology. They urged public support for the arts as critical to the nurturing and growth of a culture, which in turn was critical to the survival of a nation.  U.S. arts-related legislation in 1965 echoed this view: 'The World leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nationís high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit (National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act, 1965)."

In response to concerns about dwindling public support, the recent American Canvas report of the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts  also emphasized the linkage of the arts to a vital culture.
 

"As a nation, however, we are obliged to take stock of our cultural resources and the quality of life the arts bring to all our citizens. The future of the arts in America depends upon the will of the people. The spirit to grow is there, but a flower can be crushed with a single step. Given half a chance, art will flourish and carpet the landscape with color and life. Let us tend these seeds we have sown and hand down undiminished to our children the artistic legacy we have nurtured."  (Alexander, 1997).
The report goes on to make the argument for increased arts education at all levels and a range of venues. "The cultural legacy that is carried into the next century will count for little if the arts audiences and participants of tomorrow, our children and their children,are ill-prepared to receive, understand, and actively share in that legacy. Serious and systematic arts instruction appears to be the exception rather than the rule for most students. Arts education, in fact, appears to be as imperiled as the arts institutions that need new audiences. Thus along with gaining an overview of the current state of arts education, it is useful as well to rehearse the basic arguments that will prove crucial in seeing that the arts are included in the more general curricular reform movement directed at the graduating classes of the next century. Among those key arguments, according to participants in the American Canvas forums, are the following:
 
 The arts are important as a subject in themselves.
 The arts enhance the study of other areas of the basic curriculum.
 The arts are relevant to the acquisition of vocational skills.
 The arts contribute to family unity and growth.
 The arts offer skills that will be useful as we move further into the Information Age.
 The arts serve those with special needs, including those who are in danger of falling through the cracks of our educational system.
If these are indeed valid, forceful arguments, there are clearly multiple contributions that arts education can make in colleges and universities. In the scope of this paper, I will focus on just three of those contributions: enhancement of the basic curriculum, acquisition of vocational skills, and skills relevant to the Information Age.

Basic Curriculum

Higher education in the United States was built upon the foundation of education in the liberal arts. Originating in literature, languages, and philosophy, liberal arts soon included mathematics and the sciences. Fine and design arts including both visual and performing arts programs originated in conservatories and separate studio-based schools before being included within colleges or universities. The arts are now well established as legitimate areas of study and recognized as sources of enrichment of the university experience.

Colleges and universities are beginning to realize a greater contribution of the arts in meeting their responsibility to see to the broader, whole-person, needs of future educated members of the American society. In this respect, institutions of higher education could draw from the experience of primary and secondary schools.

 
'The arts contribute to an overall culture of excellence in a school. They are an effective means of connecting children to each other and helping them gain an understanding of the creators who preceded them. They provide schools with a ready way to formulate relationships across and among traditional disciplines and to connect ideas and notice patterns. Works of art provide effective means for linking information in history and social studies, mathematics, science, and geography. A work of art can lead to many related areas of learning, opening lines of inquiry, revealing that art, like life, is lived in a complex world not easily defined in discrete subjects.' (Wolfenson & Williamson, 1993)
Artists, at their best, provide a synthesized view of the perceptions, concerns, ideas, and aspirations of their time and place. How can we understand or appreciate the breadth, depth, and significance of the Italian Renaissance without studying the works of Michelangelo or the architecture of Brunelleschi, Bernini, and Bramante? Do not the ancient temples and gardens of the Far East speak to us as forcefully as the haiku poems of Bashu? To take in the scope of the Restoration and Georgian eras in England, surely we must encounter the music of Purcell and Handel as well as the architecture of Wren and Hawksmoor. We begin to understand our own culture by understanding other cultures. A true liberal arts or humanities education requires the introduction of art, music, and architecture as an integral part of a cultural education, not an add-on.

Arts programs can often serve as catalysts for effective pursuit of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, or diversification objectives that drive current reform in higher education by cutting across disciplinary boundaries and joining students faculty and communities in the context of culture. For example, Ball State University in 1988, 1990, and 1992 conducted UniverCity  , a one-week program in which a broad spectrum of nationally prominent speakers and performers provided the framework for a campus-wide cross-departmental sharing of perceptions and ideas. Arts performances, exhibitions, and presentations were vital to the success of the program and its by-products.
 

Vocational Skills

Noted management consultant and author Peter Drucker (1969) pointed out three major changes that are producing a discontinuity in the development of society:
 

"...imperceptibly there has emerged a world economy in which common information generates the same economic appetites, aspirations, and demands-cutting across national boundaries and languages and largely disregarding political ideologies as well. The world has become in other words, one market, one global shopping center."  In the political arena "...there is rapid disenchantment with the biggest and fastest growing of these institutions, modern government, as well as cynicism regarding its ability to perform. We're becoming equally critical of the other organized institutions... But the most important of these changes is the last one. Knowledge, during the last few decades, has become the central capital, the cost center, and the crucial resource of the economy. This changes labor forces and work, teaching and learning, and the meaning of knowledge and its politics (p. ix-xi).
The blurring of distinctions in place, time, or identity has a general disorienting effect leading to the disintegration of the cultural reference so critical to Winston Churchill's leadership in a time of national crisis. These discontinuities have impacts at all levels of society presenting profound changes in the nature and scope of work, requiring a re-examination of work skills and the educational methods needed to foster those skills.

The  U.S. Dept. of Labor SCANS report  (1991), identified five competencies needed to be successful in the future business environment.

Resources: Identifies, organizes, plans, and allocates resources

A. Time,Selects goal-relevant activities, ranks them, allocates time, and prepares and  follows schedules
B. Money,Uses or prepares budgets, makes forecasts, keeps records, and makes adjustments to meet objectives
C. Material and Facilities,Acquires, stores, allocates, and uses materials or space efficiently
D. Human Resources,Assesses skills and distributes work accordingly, evaluates performance and provides feedback
Interpersonal: Works with others
A. Participates as Member of a Team,contributes to group effort
B. Teaches Others New Skills
C. Serves Clients/Customers,works to satisfy customers' expectations
D. Exercises Leadership,communicates ideas to justify position, persuades and convinces
 others, responsibly challenges existing procedures and policies
E. Negotiates,works toward agreements involving exchange of resources, resolves divergent interests
F. Works with Diversity,works well with men and women from diverse backgrounds
Information: Acquires and uses information
A. Acquires and Evaluates Information
B. Organizes and Maintains Information
C. Interprets and Communicates Information
D. Uses Computers to Process Information
Systems: Understands complex inter-relationships
A. Understands Systems,knows how social, organizational, and technological systems work and operates effectively with them
B. Monitors and Corrects Performance,distinguishes trends, predicts impacts on system operations, diagnoses deviations in systems' performance and corrects malfunctions
C. Improves or Designs Systems,suggests modifications to existing systems and develops new or alternative systems to improve performance
Technology: Works with a variety of technologies
 
A. Selects Technology,chooses procedures, tools or equipment including computers and related technologies
B. Applies Technology to Task,Understands overall intent and proper procedures for  setup and operation of equipment
C. Maintains and Troubleshoots Equipment,Prevents, identifies, or solves problems with equipment, including computers and other technologies
A reading the detailed discussion of these competencies, leaves one with the clear impression that future success in work will come to those who can understand and function within complex human-resource-operational systems where the question will be not only how or what can be achieved but also what is appropriate.

The SCANS competencies are directly addressed by several features common to fine and design arts education:

- Bridging and integrating human and technical concerns
- Systems view- Understanding the relationship of parts to the whole
- Problem solving in ambiguous contexts
- Critical thinking including description, analysis, interpretation, and judgment
- Analogical modeling
- Blending of linear and lateral thinking
- Balance of intuitive and reflective thinking
Within universities a number of traditional disciplines in the humanities and sciences are experimenting with the application of teaching methods traditional in arts education. These experiments include approaches such as:
 
- Project based learning- Theory applied to a practical situation that recognizes context, needs, and form or method;
- Knowledge mapping- The use of graphic language for information access and communication;
- Performance or presentation- Demonstrating the relationship between theory and application.
The Information Age

While there is no consensus on the nature of changes that the information age will foster, there is agreement that significant changes are afoot and to come. And experience with past technological advances raises serious concerns.
 

"Aware that we are living in the midst of a technological revolution, we are becoming increasingly concerned with its meaning for the individual and its impact on freedom, on society, and on our political institutions. Side by side with messianic promises of utopia to be ushered in by technology, there are the most dire warnings of man's enslavement by technology, his alienation from himself and from society, and the destruction of all human and political values." (Drucker, 1969)
But attaching hopes or fears to technology itself misses the critical role played by human societies and individuals.
 
"No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does not form an independent system like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill. The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises."  (Mumford, 1962, p. 6)
Two factors stand out in Mumford's assertion: the context of human culture and the judgment of appropriateness (well vs. ill). Both relate to questions of perceptions that form links between cultural identity and specific actions that have consequences:
 
- Societies form perceptions of what is valuable on the basis of what corresponds to their collective self perception or self image
- Individuals form perceptions of what is valuable or of interest on the basis of their self perception or self image and the stronger their self image the more discerning are their perceptions of the world around them
- Individual and societal perceptions of the opportunities to be found in technology (in this case information technology) are ultimately linked to their self image
As we have increased our scientific descriptions and manipulations of the world (not to say knowledge), we have been forced to divide and conquer, to specialize as the earliest civilizations specialized, in order to search deeper and deeper into narrower and narrower topics. But we have sometime in recent history passed the point where we can collectively view our knowledge of the world and give it some perspective. We no longer seem able to easily establish communal values to guide us or to know what problems to solve and how, even for the simplest of goals.

When do specialization, individualism, and pluralism cease to be enriching and begin to approach anarchy? We find it difficult to agree on the most fundamental of philosophies. A February 1988 article in U.S. News and World Report entitled "An Endangered Modern Species" bemoans the "passing of great thinkers from the public scene". Even if we believe our world today has at least as many exceptionally intelligent people as it ever had, could the very idea of the Renaissance mind be finally beyond human capacity? Has our data precluded knowledge and understanding? With all of our creative insights and rigorous searching, is the world still just as mysterious and frightening as when we were hunter gatherers and paradoxically because of our additional knowledge?

How can we as individuals or communities come to grips with our very nervous and complex world? How can we assume a hopeful, constructive, and reasoned perspective and again believe in a future which holds the promise of a better life? How can we begin to act together and for each other?

This brings us back to the important role of culture and therefore the arts in addressing technological revolutions. The full promise of the information age will depend upon the evolution of culture, and higher education can play an important role in this evolution.

 
'We are precisely at a time when universities can do exactly what corporations cannot do and the government should not do: foster and nurture new ideas (Negropont, 1996)'
'In the pool of knowledge at a university, professors are not the fish, but the pond. The water is not chlorinated, clear, precisely circumscribed, and inhabited by one kind of perfect goldfish. It is a muddied habitat with fuzzy edges and home to all sorts of people, including those who do not fit traditional scholarship. That is where new ideas come from.' (Negroponte, 1996)
In conclusion, I suggest that the fine and design arts are precisely those non-traditional "fuzzy" entities within universities which can provide the catalyst for:
 
- Broader, more inclusive general liberal arts education
- Vocational skills appropriate to the evolving contexts of work
- Creativity and invention required for appropriate exploitation of information technology
The arts can be the grains of sand that irritate the university oysters to produce future pearls of enriching creativity. As Hillary Rodham Clinton recently stated:
 
"The spirit of Creative America has spurred us to say and write and draw what we think, feel and dream. . . . to celebrate through dance, in songs, in paint and on paper, the story of America: of who we are, where we have been, and what we hope to be. "
 

References

Alexander, J.  in American Canvas (1997). Washington DC: The National Endowment for the Arts.

Drucker, P.F. (1969). The age of discontinuity. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Mumford, L. (1962). Technics and civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962. p.6.

National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, (1965).

Negoponte, N. (January, 1996).  Where do ideas come from?'  Wired.

U.S. Department of Labor (1991). What work requires of schools.  Secretary's Commission on  Achieving Necessary Skills.
     Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wolfenson, J. & Williams, H. (1993). The power of the arts to transform education.  The Partnershipís Working Group.