Imagination in the Curriculum: the Arts, History, Languages

“In Singapore and South Korea, teachers are thought of as nation-builders.” Secretary Duncan made this comment in May, 2011 at the National Center on Education and the Economy National Symposium.

As a teacher in the United States am I seen as a nation-builder? To be honest, I more often feel I am seen as a second-rate professional, someone who apparently couldn’t succeed at a more lucrative, high-status job – why else would I be a teacher?

Actually, when I first went into teaching back in 1985, I did think of myself as part of a movement to build a more democratic United States. I believed that teachers could help change America for the better. I wanted to help all students get the kind of education the wealthy are able to afford.  Almost thirty years later, I feel much less naive, and also discouraged.

Everywhere I look in schools I see inequity. Students in privileged districts enjoy an education rich in the arts, hands-on experience, and language immersion programs. These students are offered all kinds of electives: Philosophy, Debate, Existential Literature, Multi-media Art. Their schools sponsor trips abroad, and students are treated to a menu that includes advanced placement courses, field-based marine biology courses, performances with sets worthy of Broadway. Teachers in these schools boast graduate degrees and teach only the subjects they cherish. Meanwhile, students in most districts in America are lucky if they can take an art class once in their high school career. More than one language? Not likely. Their school might have a teacher or two interested in Philosophy and Sculpture – or perhaps not. Most likely their school has many teachers who have been asked to teach a subject they don’t really love. All of this matters in terms of the quality of education the students receive.

Each year things seem to get worse for students in less-privileged districts. Administrators are panicked by low test scores and squelch offerings in anything but the subjects that ‘matter.’ More and more minutes go to Language Arts and Math. Fewer and fewer minutes go to Social Studies and the arts. Recess and Gym class have gone the way of typewriters in many of these schools. This is no way to create an equitable society.

We have a growing gap between those who have – and those who have not. Children of the wealthy know all kinds of things – letters of the ancient Greek alphabet, the architecture of the Mayans, the great artistic works of Medieval Europe, how to tune a violin.  Many children of the middle and lower classes know how to read, do math, and use technology – and that’s about it.

Some will say it does not matter if we know what the people painted thousands of years ago or if our students know how to paint a picture. I would counter that it is knowledge of the arts, and of history, and of global cultures that will separate the ‘bosses’ from the ‘minions’ in this next century. Without the cultivation of imagination human potential is untapped. We need leaders – people who will think of the solutions to our problems – people who will think outside the box. Think of Einstein.  For him imagination was king. Would he approve of the educational system we are creating? Where is the imagination in an education system that suppresses the arts and emphasizes the reading of non-fiction? The elite of previous generations were raised on the power of imagination. “A well-read man.” That phrase was not referring to engineering texts – it meant to have been steeped in the history, languages, and fiction of the cultures of the world.

Those who direct school systems need to pay attention to issues of equity. It is not okay to offer our poorer students a watered-down curriculum. That is not the way to improve learning outcomes for them. That is the way to create greater inequality, a scenario which has them less well-prepared to be leaders than their wealthier peers. Learning outcomes improve when students work with teachers who are experts in their subjects and when the curriculum they follow is exciting, challenging, and rich in imagination.

Teachers can be nation-builders. The question is – is that what the United States wants? At the moment we have business as usual, and business as usual favors the top one percent. If we want equity in this country we can get it. The United States can get what it puts its mind to. However equity must be a national priority, or our education system will continue to lag behind those of the rest of the developed world. Make way for Singapore and South Korea – and Finland, the world’s education star. Wouldn’t it be nice if we occupied that position?


Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.