The Future of Diversity in American Education

James G. Todd Jr.
Art and Humanities
University of Montana-Missoula

Editor's note: The following article was given as the keynote address at the 1995-96 Montana Art Educators Association Conference. It was dedicted to the memory of Joseph Kinsey Howard (1906-51).


My talk today will be concerned primarily with the issue of diversity in art education. Diversity in the public schools is today's word for social tolerance and openness toward different ethnic, racial and sexual lifestyles other than the dominant Anglo-American tradition. The effort to promote diversity in art education is an extension of that larger social concern.

Ever since the end of WW II, there have been ongoing efforts to increase the democratic nature of our institutions and professions. The post WW II GI Bill enabled veterans from poorer economic backgrounds to attend college. The post war growth of unions and teachers' organizations gave educators greater participatory rights and control over their working conditions especially through collective bargaining. The Civil Rights Movement, the student movements of the 1960s, Affirmative Action, and the development of Afro-American, Native American and Women Studies programs in the universities have all done their share in promoting equality and cultural diversity in American life.

Today, however, the promise of these efforts has become suspect in the eyes of some citizens. The once lauded GI Bill is largely replaced by a student loan system wherein many students are in chronic default of loan repayment or so saddled with debt that they begin their professional lives in conditions of extreme insecurity and anxiety. Labor unions are fighting for their very existence, as many workers enter the market place without the protection which was once a part of union membership. Affirmative Action, a direct outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement is itself criticized for allegedly creating inverted forms of racism and sexism. The student movements of the 1960s are often associated with drug misuse and sexual promiscuity rather than with earlier student efforts to achieve greater levels of democratic participation in education and society. The development of ethnic and Women Studies programs which originally were efforts to integrate minority studies into the school curriculum are now themselves criticized for their own alleged forms of separatism and intolerance.

Some of the attacks, of course, derive from traditional anti-democratic and reactionary quarters, but today, even these voices have greater impetus due to the public's disillusionment with government, and the general perception of declining moral and economic expectations for ourselves and our children. At their most extreme, these frustrations are expressed in the rise of neo-Nazi movements and terrorism, but it would be an error to conclude that public criticism of government social programs is nothing more than anti-democratic demagoguery. Too many citizen feel left out and betrayed by institutions which once promised them a future of human caring and social growth. I was reminded recently when watching Martin Scorsese's 1976 film "Taxi Driver" of just how long this sense of social alienation and disenfranchisement has been expressed in American films.

The next question then and the topic of my talk today is where art education fits into this situation. It might help to clarify this by first reviewing some of the social history of our profession.


Visual artists, i.e., those who specialize in the creation and production of visual imagery, were for many centuries, and in much of the world, regarded as social inferiors. Art was largely the work of women, slaves, and lowly artisans; people who crouched over their labor; preoccupied with the details of hand work, and expressing ideas not so much their own as those of their patrons.

Throughout much of ancient and medieval history in the West, visual artists were the icon makers for churches; the decorators of state architecture, and the creators of paintings and sculpture which glorified the state's ruling classes, warriors and athletes.

I do not, however, wish to leave the impression that artists were merely faceless victims bent beneath the yoke of oppression; silently longing for creative freedom, and the right to vent their soul felt feelings. That view, in my judgement, is too romantic, and I do not believe that most artists felt this way at all--at least for many centuries. Like the peasants, priests, warriors, kings and queens of earlier times, artists found themselves born into a social scheme they most likely considered normal and correct. When changing social and economic conditions made the status quo unacceptable for artists, it had become so for everyone else as well. The lowly status of past artists reflected to a large extent, society's attitude toward those who toiled with their hands, while obeying the commands of their superiors.

In the Western world, this situation begun to change during the 13th and 14th centuries A.D. The anonymous and largely uneducated artisan was in some instances transformed into the learned humanist--a type of artist who could use his own brain instead of relying on the conceptual ideas of others. To appreciate this development we only have to compare the ancient artisan slave or even the medieval guild member with Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Much of this change for artists was due to what we today call a liberal education, and artisans who were so educated became known as "fine artists" as distinct from the common craftsperson. Michelangelo's argument with Pope Julius II over the Sistine Chapel paintings may strike us today as an issue of religious freedom, but perhaps, more importantly, the quarrel demonstrated the artist's new status as an independent creative personality who could defy a pope, and get away with it. Unlike the Middle Ages, where we know the works, but not the artists, the Renaissance brought forth an age wherein the names of artists are often better known than their creations.

The post-Renaissance distinction between artist and artisan created a hierarchy in our profession that is still reflected in our disputes about "art" and "craft." The artist is sometimes perceived as a mysterious agent of creation while the craftsperson is considered to be a kind of stool maker. Old prejudices do not die easily.

For the sake of today's discussion I will define a fine artist as a person like a composer or writer, who uses art primarily as a means of independent self expression, and the artisan or craftsperson as someone who produces commissioned art for purposes determined by a patron. This distinction is overly simplified because in many cases, the two types overlap, but I believe the basic difference is accurate, and is in fact, the premise upon which today's public art education is founded in democratic societies.

The evolution of the "fine artist" as a new prototype after the Renaissance was largely confined to male artists. Women remained for the most part in artisan roles. Exceptions such as the Renaissance painters Sofonisba Angrissola and Artemisia Gentilechi are important, however, because they were early indications that the prototype of fine artist could be an aspiration of women as well as males. The new forms of liberal education also affected women in the upper classes, but it was not until the last half of the 19th century with the advance of democratic societies, and the corollary development of public education, that we discern growing members of women as fine artists and educators. It is in fact, at this same time that the modern concept of art educator developed; i.e. an artist who teaches professional skills and cultural appreciation in the public school system.

The accessibility of art education was, however, not only a question for women. In the U. S., it was not until the 19th century with the early development of public education that art was given consideration as a regular part of the school curriculum for anyone. And it was as recent as our century that art education gradually became accepted as a study for students on elementary, secondary and university levels. Democracy in education is by its very nature diverse since public instruction in principle claims to find a means of reaching everyone in school regardless of gender, class or ethnic heritage. The problem of this effort lies not so much in its promise, but rather its failure to deliver. Democratic education is in part a constant effort to keep up with the changing nature of the classroom.


The first artists to demand the right of a broad humanist education were European males followed by European and American women, and most recently by Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, and the handicapped and aged of all races.

Democracy in art education in the U.S. is based on the premise that art instruction should foster personality development and creative self-expression, and teach the technical and formal skills that these objectives require. The premise as we have seen is derived from the individualist philosophy of "fine art" rather than the utilitarian artisan tradition. The latter, such as furniture making, commercial photography, advertizing design, etc., are usually taught in Vocational-Technical Colleges or commercial art programs which emphasize utility over self-expression.

The distinction is important to recognize because once we acknowledge the "fine art" basis for personality development in democratic education, we can better understand how technical and formal skills play a role in this process, and why ethical and social issues are also a necessary part of the curriculum.

But if American art education is to achieve such high minded goals while also accommodating an increasingly diverse student body, art programs, in my judgement, will require at lest three things.

  1. The state must give full financial and philosophical support to its elementary, secondary, and college level art programs. It is mandatory that such support be exactly the same pedagogical and economic commitment that is given to other educational programs and their teachers.

  2. Art educators themselves must be fully committed to the study of the history, art, and ethical beliefs of diverse cultural traditions. It is not enough to give lip service to multi-culturalism; teachers must study the cultures they profess to teach.

  3. Art educators must resist the contempt for formal skills in art which continues to influence some art educators, and is based on the mistaken notion that technical ability is a detriment to creativity. This peculiar belief is derived primarily from "anti-art" movements, and is fundamentally anti-educational.


The state must give financial and philosophical support to its elementary, secondary, and college level art programs. It is mandatory that such support be exactly the same pedagogical and economic commitment that is given to other educational programs and their teachers.

All of us in the profession know that state commitment to art education has always been marginal, and now threatens to decline even further. The world wide shift toward privatization since the end of the Cold War, and the dramatic reduction of state budgets has left nothing untouched. If the sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare are threatened, the arts have even more to fear. It has not been an American tradition for federal or state government to regularly commit money to the arts and culture, and there are few signs for optimism that the situation will improve in the near or distant future.

Does this mean that diversity in art education is threatened? I believe that it does. This is the first time since WW II that universities and colleges have begun retreating from the post WW II commitment to democracy in higher education. The open door policies of state universities are threatened by stricter admission requirements and rapidly increasing tuition costs for students.

The most obvious danger in this development toward educational diversity lies in the fact that the growing costs of higher education will either drive the poorer students out of school or prevent them from entering altogether.

Budget slashing on the secondary and elementary levels will lead to the reduction or outright elimination of art programs. In Montana, the university regents have recently proposed a plan whereby state college programs would bid competitively against one another for their existence on the merits of costs and projected expense. In such a market oriented approach, "fine art" education more than ever will be regarded as a frill. Current educational claims for greater job preparedness for students will in all likelihood pressure art teachers to include more market skills and commercial art in their courses at the expense of cultural history and creative expression.

At my own university, budget restraints and market oriented educational philosophies already threaten to reduce diversity in efforts to break down the distinctions between the arts. Classes are proposed by the administration which will squeeze drama, dance, visual arts and music together under the amorphous heading of general and comparative art studies on both graduate and undergraduate levels. In the sometimes heady atmosphere of innovation, many do not see that these changes could in reality become a process of program and faculty elimination along with the erosion of specialized training in the arts. Diversity in art education rests directly on specialized media, instrumental and performance studies. If these educational options are not protected, future Montana students seeking specialized art training may find themselves directed instead to mass cultural appreciation courses where everything and nothing will be taught to everyone and no one.


Art educators themselves must be fully committed to the study of the history, art, and ethical beliefs of diverse cultural traditions. It is not enough to give lip service to multi-culturalism; teachers must study the cultures they profess to teach.

It has been fashionable for some years to promote multi-culturalism in education and the arts. At best, multi-culturalism can foster attitudes of democratic tolerance and understanding, but for educators its implications are also highly demanding in terms of new learning and work. Studies and research into the culture, art and history of minority students--not to speak of the American aversion to learning a foreign language--are necessary if the effort is to have any real significance. Americans also have to realize that multi-culturalism itself is an ideological position, and that it may not be in agreement or even be at odds with the beliefs of other societies.

The question for us today however, is whether multi-cultural diversity can be maintained and supported by teachers in the current circumstances of declining state educational support.

I personally believe that art teachers will be committed to educational programs of diversity in direct proportion to the commitment they receive themselves from their own schools and administrators. The growing trend toward the use of non-contracted part time teachers--"substitutes" on elementary and secondary levels; temporary faculty in colleges--is not in this regard hopeful for the future of diversity.

In my own school, the number of temporary teachers is now placed at something like one third of the faculty. These teachers fall outside the protection of the regular faculty contract. They are without medical insurance, pension plans or wage regulation. They can be terminated without cause, and are often hired without job searches or regular faculty involvement.

In earlier times, such a situation would have had teachers' unions up in arms, but as mentioned earlier, unions are struggling for their very existence, and like faltering corporations, they are propelled toward mergers with outside organizations for survival, or at times practice outright collaboration with employers to stay afloat.

In these circumstances, many art teachers feel under siege, unappreciated, unprotected and alone--hardly the conditions conducive to their energetic commitment to additional study and work which are the requirements for a truly diverse art curriculum.


Art educators must resist the contempt for formal skills in art which continues to influence some art educators, and is based on the mistaken notion that technical ability is a detriment to creativity. This peculiar belief is derived primarily from "anti-art" movements, and is fundamentally anti-educational.

One of the most troubling and destructive legacies of the post WW II period in U.S. art education was the belief of many artists that technical and manual skills were a hindrance to true creative expression. In recent years, there has been a reaction against this attitude as it became obvious that technical skill was an essential element in artistic development. The proof was in the pudding. By the nineteen seventies, many art graduates had been left without rudimentary forms of drawing skill or formal education in the visual arts, and had been reduced to a position of defending their art solely on the merits of "self-expression." Art education was running the risk of becoming little more than free lance art therapy in the college classroom.

While many artists and art educators today have renewed their commitment to formal and technical training, school administrators in their desire to cut educational costs, have seen advantages in taking up the banner of open-ended non-technical cultural studies. Such approaches furnish them with the necessary rationale for the gradual elimination of specialized training since non-specialized courses and programs require fewer teachers, accommodate larger number of students, and encourage the use of non-specialists as instructors.

Given such a bleak picture of the declining support for art education, how can we expect overworked teachers to take on new and uncompensated levels of work which are required by diversity? And if the recent failure of art programs to instill necessary skills and knowledge in art students have prevented them from coming to terms with their own culture, how can we expect these same students to come to grips with even more undigested cultural information?

The problem is further confounded by the presence of art educators who as products of a crippled system are themselves without the means to teach today's students. Such teachers often rely upon conceptual eclecticism and pseudo-sociological approaches to art to hide their own shortcomings and vacuity of teaching method. Unfortunately, but as might be expected, it is these same teachers who are often the most willing to support the non-specialized cultural programs in art education proposed by budget conscious administrators.


Under such circumstances is there anything we can hope to do? I believe that there is, but only if we recommit ourselves to the real responsibilities required by democratic education. If we accept these responsibilities, I believe, we will move toward a real diversity in our art programs without having to forsake the specialized instruction required by students to become practicing artists. If, however, we continue to follow our current shift away from open and accessible education, our art programs as we know them will not survive--or at least not in any fashion that most serious practicing artists would desire. Art programs will instead become the institutional stepchildren of administrators who are often neither practicing artists nor practicing educators--the same people whose wages continue to rise while the wages of the real classroom workers are often frozen or in decline.

But what will a renewed commitment to democracy in art education really mean? It will mean that we will continue our struggle as art teachers to demand that we be treated equitably and with professional respect by our administrators.

We will neither accept nor contribute to the institutional stereotypes that demean us. Grade school and high school art teachers will not tolerate attitudes that see them merely as the staff who design athletic logos, decorate the bulletin boards, and entertain students between "academic" classes.

College art professors will not sit by compliantly while administrators invest thousands of dollars into electronic score board devices while allowing studio facilities for students to erode and deteriorate.

But art educators themselves cannot expect respect unless we avoid playing out the stereotypes with which we are associated.

We will have to counter the claim that visual artists cannot articulate themselves by speaking out forthrightly and clearly about our needs and the nature of our art. The older I become, the more painful I find the subservient and ingratiating behavior of some art teachers when they confront school administrators.

As art educators we take pride in the fact that we are both practicing artists and teachers of democratic culture. We are fortunate to possess skills that are both manual and intellectual, and today, we represent one of the most important forms of social communication. We live in an age in which the written word has been equalled in importance by electronic and reproductive imagery. The visual signs, symbols and iconography of our world is the alphabet of our profession, and we need to study and master this knowledge so that it leads to real visual literacy, and not just the curriculum fodder for new budget saving art programs.

While it is unlikely that significant new monies can be expected for art education, this does not mean that we should sit idly by while administrators continue to proliferate unregulated policies of employment and hiring. Democracy in education lies both in and outside the classroom, and teachers will have to reorganize or demand of their existing unions and teachers organizations that they get back to their jobs of representing teachers, and defending teachers against the abuse of their employers. The excuse of union officials that they cannot afford to rock the boat in today's economy is unacceptable. The need for union activism is in fact most important during times of economic difficulty,

Such a reorganization of teachers will also require a real sense of union among teachers themselves. The divisiveness of sexism practiced by both men and women in our profession will have to be overcome. We will have to see ourselves whatever our gender or race as art educators committed foremost to our students. Once we realize that the political divisions of race and sex that exist in our profession play into the hands of beleaguered administrators who are convinced that our lack of union is to their advantage, we hopefully will begin to pull together.

And as art educators, we must carry attitudes of self respect and self reliance into the classroom. If we are indeed committed to the democratic premise in art education of creative personality development in our students, we will have to approach this obligation with modesty and informed determination. The old classroom crutches of "non verbal" artistic intuition; contempt for technical skills; amoral attitudes of "anything goes" in creativity; and disdain for tradition have proven themselves inadequate and bankrupt. As mentioned earlier, these are attitudes which are perhaps appropriate for open ended group therapy sessions, but hardly adequate for the preparation of professional artists or a culturally informed audience.

I do not want to leave the impression that I am calling for a return to a conservative or authoritarian form of art education. I have been a proponent of inter-disciplinary studies and holistic approaches to art since I began teaching some thirty years ago. I was instrumental in incorporating the visual arts into the Humanities program at my school; I helped to design an inter-disciplinary cultural program for the inmates in the state prison; I developed the Humanities courses that incorporated Native American Studies into the traditional Liberal Arts program; and I have been at odds with some of my colleagues for many years because of my interest in the use of Popular Culture in the classroom. And most importantly, I have dedicated much of my teaching to the social history of the visual arts in an effort to understand and overcome the prejudices against artists.

However, I do not believe that we as art educators can bring our students to the academic levels we propose without the same level of integrity in research and study that we assume for our colleagues in the sciences and the liberal arts. It is a big burden because we must also continue to be practicing artists, but it is a burden that also demonstrates the importance of our vocation.

I recall several years ago, of how I presented approaches to high school art teachers of how they might responsibly incorporate art historical material into their studio classes even though they were without art history degrees. This would probably not have been appreciated by local art historians more mindful of their own turf than finding ways of bringing art history to high school students. And, of course, the effort might have failed, but from what I have heard, it has been successful, and reflects what art educators are able to do with the proper will and willingness to extend their learning.

One of my most important tasks as a teacher of graduate studies in art is to be sure that I respect the right of students to choose their own thesis direction. This is essential in a genuinely democratic program of higher education, but it is easy, sometimes unwittingly, to push students in a direction that is not of their choosing.

But the truly difficult job begins when the student makes his or her own choice of thesis commitment because it means that the instructors must forgo their own preferences, and use their knowledge and experience to direct the student's project on its own basis. An Irish realist painter must be able to advise an Indonesian experimental installation artist, and vice versa. That means inevitably that the teacher must continually learn new things because each thesis project has its own unique character and demand, and it is here where the diversity of art education will be natural and unforced. But the skills possessed by each student in preparation for their projects varies greatly, and the teacher often steps in to criticize, suggest, or at times even recommend modifications which are more appropriate to the student's ability.

I mention this because I regard the relationship of teacher and student in graduate studies as a kind of microcosm of the relationship between art educators and students on all levels. Admittedly, the skills and stages of psychological growth from grade school to college differ enormously, and the responsibilities and demands on each educational level are unique. An overemphasis on skill among pre-adolescents can destroy their creative incentive while an absence of technical training among adolescents denies their age need to demonstrate physical dexterity and conceptual ability. Among university art majors, the problem is often how to establish awareness and balance between acquired technical skills and creative imagination. But if we art educators have all done our job, we will see that we have worked in conjunction with one another on all educational levels, and that in a truly democratic system of art education, cultural diversity will not have to be a management decree, but will be an educational inevitability.

I believe we are now facing hard times as art educators, but we must not forget that at the beginning of the century, we hardly even existed as a profession. In this respect, there is no comparison between that time and our own, but as we come to the end of the millenium, we must now more than ever commit ourselves to a struggle to retain what we have worked so hard to create for our students and communities.

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, J. (1974). The Use and Abuse of Art. London: Princeton University.

Berger, J. (1973). Ways of Seeing. New York: Viking.

Boas, F. (1955). Primitive Art. New York: Dover.

Coomaraswamy, A. (1956). The Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. New York: Dover.

Feldman, E. (1982). The Artist. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Fischer, E. (1963). The Necessity of Art. London: Penguin.

Harris, N. (1970). The Artist in American Society. New York: Clarion.

Hauser, A. (1951). The Social History of Art. New York: Vintage.

McCoubrey, J. (1965). American Art 1700-1960. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Minor, V. H. (1994). Art History's History. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Slatkin, W. (1985). Women in Art History. New York: Dover.

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