Threatens The Already Shaky Status Of Music Arts Education

Parents can watch their kids draw and paint at home or perform in school music concerts and dance recitals. But they may not know how their school arts program compares with others around the country.

As a music education professor and a researcher who studies arts education policies, I know that access to and the quality of arts programs vary greatly among states, districts and even schools within the same district.

Additionally, I see that disruptions from the pandemic are threatening the already tenuous status of the arts in public schools.

Who Gets To Study Art And Music?

Music education first made its way into American public schools in Boston in the 1830s. It started with singing instruction, with instrumental music to follow later in the century. Today, arts programs in K-12 schools include visual arts, music, theater, dance and multimedia or design.

A congressionally mandated study from 2011 offers a snapshot of what’s available to kids. Back then, 94% of public elementary schools reported that they offered music instruction, and 83% offered visual arts. Theater (4%) and dance (3%) were much less common.

Data also shows that, at least at the high school level, larger schools and traditional public schools offer more arts courses than do smaller schools and private or charter schools.

But the more locally one looks, the more disparities emerge. For example, only 22% of high schools with high concentrations of poverty offer five or more visual arts courses, compared with 56% of high schools with low concentrations of poverty. Some evidence suggests schools with mostly white students offer significantly more music offerings than schools in the same metropolitan area that serve mostly students of color.

Disparities also exist in terms of how qualified arts teachers are in different schools. In Utah, for example, fewer than 10% of elementary school students receive music instruction from certified specialists. And in my own analysis of music education in Michigan in 2017-2018, I found only two-thirds of urban schools had certified music teachers, compared with almost 90% of suburban schools.

Cuts To Instruction Music

These findings offer clues to how the arts are currently position in U.S. schools. Although the arts were consider a core subject in the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, they not factor into annual testing or relate sanctions against underperforming schools. As a result, instructional time in the arts was cut back.

In two studies from 2007 to 2008, schools indicated that they had cut an average of 145 minutes per week across the nontested subjects, lunch and recess. Where visual art and music cut back, it was for an average of 57 minutes per week.

Because states determine curricular requirements and other policies, the landscape varies. Arkansas, for example, requires 40 minutes of elementary school art and music per week, while Michigan has no requirement for either. Only 32 states consider the arts a core subject.

Furthermore, a school superintendent’s priorities may be the deciding factor in whether a school district’s arts education is robust or merely an afterthought. In a 2017 study I did on arts education in Lansing, Michigan, a midsized school district that had cut staff to fill a budgetary gap, I found elementary schools offered a single music and art class once every eight weeks.

Benefits Of Arts Education

Arts education has been associate with increase cognitive ability, academic achievement, creative thinking, school engagement and so-called soft skills like compassion for others. However, many of these studies are correlational rather than causal. It may be that more advanced and more privileged students pursued arts education in the first place.

Still, research on the benefits of the arts has spurred many schools to invest in arts integration. This approach marries arts content with traditional academic subjects. For example, students might learn history though theater performances. Other policies aim to use arts integration and artist residencies to improve test scores, attendance, graduation rates and other metrics.

Some arts education advocates have pushed back with a rallying cry of art for art’s sake. They worry that if arts education is always justify by its impact on math and reading achievement, it may be view as nice but not necessary.

More recently, arts education proponents talk about access to a well-rounded, rich curriculum as an equity issue. This has led large districts in Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Houston to slowly chip away at disparities in arts education.

COVID-19 And Music Arts Education

Hands-on arts classes made for an awkward fit with remote learning when schools suspended in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many music teachers report that they were told not to hold live virtual classes with students, and that their students did not engage much with their assignments.

Yet when schools returned to in-person instruction, frustrations and confusion continued to abound. After a community choir rehearsal in Washington state turn into a super spreader event, singing and playing wind instruments were banned in many schools. In visual arts classes, the sharing of materials was an issue. And across schools, arts teachers were limit by social distancing restrictions and guidelines around keeping groups of students separate.

Preliminary results of a survey I’m conducting suggest that high school music class enrollment has suffered during the pandemic. This may be as a result of students exiting the public school system or of safety concerns regarding singing and performing in large groups.

What’s Next?

As more normalcy returns to schools, will arts education programs rebound? Two forces may help determine the answer.

On one hand, the concern over so-called learning loss is pushing school districts to invest in extra tutoring and coaching in traditionally tested subjects like math and English language arts. As in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind, this could crowd out instructional time for the arts.

However, the pandemic has also drawn more attention to mental health and student wellness. Arts classrooms may provide a natural place for social and emotional learning. Because of the focus on collaboration, goal-setting and emotional expression.

There are also government and nonprofit efforts to make arts education more consistent across the country. Proposed legislation like the Arts Education for All Act would expand arts education in K-12 public schools and require. More data reporting on arts achievement at the state and federal levels.

For now, access to school arts education remains unequal in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic could help focus attention. These inequities and spur solutions, or it could further complicate the perennially shaky footing of the arts in schools.


Monet And Phantom Of The Opera Middlebrow Culture Today

Culture has long been stratified as high or low, or perhaps high and popular to soften the blow. But what about the in-between? The word middlebrow emerged into English in the 1920s as an insult. It described works that mistook mere good taste for serious art and consumers who couldn’t tell the difference.

We asked almost 1500 Australians about their cultural preferences and participation, and mapped their responses on a spectrum. There is a clear divide between those who don’t regularly engage with arts and culture on one side and the dedicated lovers of high or avant-garde art forms on the other.

The most concentrated area of mapped data was in the middle space. This patch filled with likes for Phantom of the Opera, Rhapsody in Blue, light classical music and jazz, TV documentaries and police shows, Monet and Ken Done, Tim Winton, Jane Austen and more can tell us what constitutes middlebrow culture today.

Airs And Graces Culture 

From the early decades of the 20th century, the new twin forces of modernist high culture and mass commercial culture produced ongoing fights over cultural value and authority among critics and consumers alike in a battle of the brows.

The language of brows suggested not just different but dramatically opposed tastes. Worse, the three brow levels could be taken to represent high, low and middle-class tastes. Any rise from below threatened those above.

Most threatening to cultural elites was not the vulgar but the middlebrow’s pretensions to culture and good taste. As Virginia Woolf put it, the middlebrow was, Of middle bred intelligence in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.

Middlebrow art imitated serious art, but only offered easy pleasure. Middlebrow consumers aspired to culture, but for its social prestige. Institutions like book clubs or radio made high culture accessible to all, supposedly dumbing it down in the process.

Major Works, Minor Arts Culture 

For French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, middle culture comprised the major works of the minor arts and the minor works of the major arts. But almost anything could be deemed middlebrow depending on how it was perceived or packaged.

There’s nothing essentially middlebrow about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, landscape painting or Jane Austen’s novels, but the term could describe most occasions for their consumption today Vivaldi over dinner, landscapes in the gallery gift shop, Austen in The Jane Austen Book Club! The works still carry their prestige as serious art, but packaged for pleasurable or tasteful consumption.

Since the 1990s a new field of middlebrow studies has arisen, relocating the middlebrow in cultural history to understand it in its own right. Scholars have identified recurrent aspects of middlebrow culture: taking culture seriously as purposeful recreation or empathetic engagement but also as a source of pleasure; open to both high and popular culture but within clear boundaries, nothing too arty or abstruse, nothing trashy or cheap.

The Australian Cultural Fields project conducted a national survey of Australians’ cultural preferences in 2015, and in the new book, Fields, Capitals, Habitus. Australian Culture, Social Divisions and Inequalities, specific attention is given to the middle space of Australian cultural tastes and engagement.

A Map Of The Middle

Individuals’ likes and dislikes for certain kinds of books, art, music, TV, heritage and sport, and participation in cultural activities, were map so that shared preferences would be clustered together. So too attitudes to certain named artists, authors, composers, and TV and sports personalities. These results were map against social variables including age, gender, education and occupational class.

This exercise revealed two very different zones of taste and engagement, and a crowded middle space between. On one side is a zone of low participation (42% of those surveyed) where negative responses are registered for almost all book types, for Impressionism, Renaissance and abstract art, classical and light classical music, TV arts and documentary programs, and more.

Likes and engagement are restrict to commercial TV, reality and sports shows, country music, landscapes and portraits, sports books, author Stephen King, family and homeland heritage, and rugby league.

Traditionally Prestigious Culture 

On the other side (21%), positive tastes are dominant, especially for the traditionally prestigious or learned items such as literary classics, modern novels, Impressionism, Indigenous books, Aboriginal and migrant heritage, the ABC and SBS, author David Malouf and artist Margaret Preston. Dislikes register for certain popular or declass genres including dance music and landscapes.

But the densest concentration of likes and dislikes falls in the cultural middle ground. This helps us visualise the middlebrow. Positive responses congregate around classical music, Aboriginal and Renaissance art, Australian histories and biographies, crime novels, TV news and lifestyle programs.

In terms of named artists and works, the middle space is even more crowded. In the literary field, Jane Austen sits proudly at the center. Alongside authors such as Bryce Courtenay, Jodi Picoult and Woolf, and painters Rembrandt, Monet and Jackson Pollock. Musically, Nessun Dorma and Phantom of the Opera are playing.

Dislikes also fall within the middle space: for Ben Quilt, Francis Bacon, Kate Grenville, Ian Rankin. Ai Weiwei and Caravaggio (alongside Stephen King, Big Brother and Kylie Minogue!). The very presence of the negative responses, however, suggests cultural capital. That it matters to have a view on such figures, even if negative.

Who Likes The Middle?

We can map the distribution of tastes against key social variables. The middle space corresponds closely to lower professional-managerial occupations like teachers, curators, academics. Tertiary but not postgraduate education; the 45-64 age group, and urban or suburban residents. Women occupy the middle space; men are closer to the less engaged zones. There is no simple alignment with class; middlebrow culture doesn’t align neatly with the middle class.

The term middlebrow remains difficult because of its still potent, pejorative connotations. What it can tell us is that imagining culture divided simply into high and low won’t get us very far. There is plenty to enjoy in the middle space.


Great Song Man, Tender And Humble Aboriginal People Voice

I am not sure of the first time I heard Archie Roach’s music voice. Like most Aboriginal people born during or after the 1980s, we grew up listening to the person we affectionately called Uncle Archie. But there was one song that spoke to me from the first moment I heard it, from Paradise.

The song tells the story of a young girl who was taken away from her Country, the river lands, part of the stolen generations. While his songs will play loud and long into the future, beneath his music Uncle Archie gave us something else, something deeply profound but mostly invisible.

He gave us and all of Australia an image of an Aboriginal man, tender and humble. An image long denied us.

Our Greatest Storyteller Voice

The passing of Archie Roach has hit us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people like the first crack of thunder after dark clouds descend. You know it’s coming, but it shocks you still.

Uncle Archie gave voice, a story, to the experiences of so many of our people. His song Took the Children Away gave shape to a suffering so deep and profound. This story’s right, this story’s true, he sang. These cathartic melodies continue to offer us healing.

His catalogue of music spans distances and experiences difficult to grasp. Uncle Archie’s gift was to write and bring to life through the strum of his guitar, the stories so familiar to us all. His success took our stories to the nation, and the world.

To describe him simply as a musician fails to recognize him as a messenger. His music reaches through darkness like the beam of a lighthouse, offering guidance and safe harbor in times of despair. Through his life and love of music, Uncle Archie became our greatest storyteller.

The Father And Mentor Voice

The music of Uncle Archie came from a place of suffering. Taken away as a child, being homeless, a drunk, locked up, learning of the death of family through whispers and letters, grief was his constant companion.

Through this time, he found Ruby Hunter. They would have two sons, Amos and Eban. Uncle Archie and Aunty Ruby, with their kids, shared a life of love, laughter and song. My personal favorite song, Down City Streets, was written by Aunty Ruby.

Uncle Archie has supported hundreds of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and inspired countless more through his foundation

For decades Uncle Archie worked in youth detention centres, talking with young people who found themselves in hardship. He offered guidance and mentorship to young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, illuminating a road through the difficulties of life, often the result of colonisation and racism.

He carefully navigated these spaces, acknowledging that while many young Aboriginal people, and especially boys, are born into a world that has been built to suppress them, they possess an inner strength stemming from culture and community.

Emu Man Voice

Through his life, his dedication to Aunty Ruby, his devotion to his sons, his work with disengaged youth and his profound love for his people, Uncle Archie gave the nation an image of an Aboriginal man seldom found in the national psyche.

Images of the violent abuser, the drunk, the criminal, the absent father, or a combination of these, saturate our print media and television news bulletins. Even positive representations of Aboriginal men the warrior, the sports star exudes a sense of toughness and candor.

Rare, almost unheard of, are the stories of Aboriginal men as sensitive, soft, loving and vulnerable people. Yet it is these qualities my research has revealed are most valued by our people. The notion of Emu Men has emerged throughout my PhD. Male emus are the primary career for their chicks. The male partner will sit on the nest and the father rears the babies.

Manhood And Fatherhood

This notion of manhood and fatherhood someone dedicate to his family, who has a primary responsibility to ensure the safety of his children and their passage through the world appears to be deeply entwine in many of our peoples customs and cultures. In Uncle Archie, we find the most profound sense of this alternate masculinity.

His songs will live on forever. But he also gifted us this alternate image of an Aboriginal man: someone soft, tender, loving, vulnerable, generous, resilient. Someone profoundly strong and with an inner wisdom, who sat on his nest and looked after his family and young people experiencing hardship.

It will take time to come to terms with this loss. To his family we offer our hearts and hold you in our spirit. This great song man gave our people a voice and a way to understand what has happened to us. He gave so much to a nation that treated him so badly. As for me, like many others, Uncle Archie’s music and concerts has offered companionship through major life events. My wife and I danced to Love in the Morning on our wedding day.

And as for From Paradise, from the first moment I heard this song I thought he wrote it about my grandmother who was taken away and sent to Palm Island. It is difficult to put words to this loss Uncle Archie was always the one with the words. Thank you for everything Uncle. May you soar with the eagles. Aunty Ruby be happy to see you.