What do we mean by art? Imagining equity in arts education.

Published in the Public School Notebook (Spring 2006)

by Debora Kodish and Deborah Wei

In a nondescript building in the midst of Chinatown, the old wooden stairs rise steeply to a 3rd floor studio where men, women, boys and girls practice intricate moves, speaking in hushed tones as if in a library. Colorful paintings, Chinese calligraphy and photos of teachers long past hang from the walls of Sifu Cheung's kung fu studio. Children here practice movements over and over, occasionally being corrected, and always knowing that the expectation is that the student is patient and diligent. The first lesson they learn is that nothing comes easy. Art is hard work; it requires practice and perseverance. These are critical life lessons seldom available in our schools.

While all arts face cutbacks and feel the pain of redirected priorities, folk arts and the masters who practice them have been kept on the margins in K-12 education. The music and art forms taught in our schools tend to derive from elite European traditions: European "classical" music and "contemporary" visual arts as taught in art schools and music conservatories (as if the cultures of the world don't boast their own classical and contemporary forms).

There is a common false assumption that folk and traditional arts are "easy" and that anyone can teach ethnic music, dance and culture. One reason people assume this is simply that we lack opportunities to see great artists in these traditions. Another reason is that legitimate masters of specific cultural traditions, artists who have spent lifetimes learning these arts, are often prevented from working in schools because tests and entrance criteria inevitably exclude those who have equally valid but different credentials than might be presented by specialists in European elite traditions.

But things could be different. We dream of a more deeply inclusive, democratic and pluralist notion of art: of arts education that truly reflects the diverse histories and cultures of Philadelphia public school students.

We dream that teaching artists with expertise in world cultural traditions are in our classrooms, teaching a wide range of arts in their historical and cultural contexts. We imagine these artists teaching free classes after school and on weekends, offering real chances for young people to master some of the city's diverse, culturally significant folk traditions - from Philadelphia-style rhythm tap dance to Afro-Cuban bata drumming, jazz to klezmer, Trinidadian steel drums to Irish bodhran, Hmong paj ndaub to Chinese lion dance, and more. We dream of fair pay for teaching artists from the city's neighborhoods - including locally-born artists who have been in the forefront of cultural heritage movements here and immigrant artists formerly in the national performance companies of their homelands.

In a city as diverse as ours, this dream shouldn't be so difficult to achieve.

Music, dance, crafts and oral traditions - the folk arts of diverse communities and cultures - have long been present in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Folk arts sustain peoples' alternative cultures and histories and provide a record of what culture and history feels like. And folk arts represent diverse forms of art-making, varied definitions of aesthetics and beauty.

But for many reasonsincluding the vise-grip of commercial media, meager public funding for arts, and public misconceptions that folk arts are trivial or exoticthese vital forms of community expression are rarely present in meaningful ways in our classrooms.

Folk arts, music and dance tend to be most visible in our schools on ethnic holidays or in school festivals. The occasional class, festival performance, or assembly program only reinforces the absence, on an everyday basis, of these significant forms of expression. When folk arts appear through a “holidays” approach, they are ripped out of any meaningful context. The complexity, difficulty, and danger of folk arts disappears in this artificial setting. Students lose the chance to understand where these arts come from, how they are used, and why they are important. They lose the chance to witness and learn patience, discipline, and different ways of seeing, hearing, and moving in the world.

Think what it would be like if we opened up our schools to value all of the city's folk arts. Students would learn that every community makes art and has an artistic and cultural heritage. Students would know that there may be great artists living right around the corner from them.

Democratizing our teaching of arts to fully include folk traditions means that students would gain a fuller, more complex picture of what arts can allow, and they would be able to see themselves in that picture. And students would see that there are passions and commitments in life that mean more than money or material consumption.

At our new Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School, our music teacher, Dawn Pratson, recently responded to peoples' common remark, “I can't sing” or “I can't dance.” She asked that we stop repeating these phrases, reminding us we are trying to build a school where everyone can dance, everyone can sing, everyone can make art.

These capacities to freely express ourselves are deeply human: they are fundamental impulses. We live in a time and a place where these natural forms of expression have become commodities. Many of us have come to believe that only those who have won a record contract can sing, and the rest of us should feel shame in lifting our voices. When we silence ourselves in this way, we lose important ways of being human, important means of freedom and expression.

In this context, folk and traditional artists in our city are models not only because of their mastery of technique and their ability to create meaningful, beautiful, and challenging expressions, but also because of the way they have lived their lives. They can remind us that there are many ways to sing, dance, and make art.  These days, we need all the lessons in freedom of expression that we can getfor our children and for ourselves.

Debora Kodish is the Director of the Philadelphia Folklore Project. Deborah Wei is the principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, which was founded this past year by Asian Americans United and the Philadelphia Folklore Project.