If teaching is an art form, then teaching art must be its masterpiece. Rachel Branham makes a compelling case for the benefits of art education in her graphic memoir, What’s So Great About Art Anyway?.
Choosing the graphic novel format to tell the story of her “Teacher’s Odyssey,” Branham perfectly illustrates the benefits of visual art in the communication of ideas. One of the ideas she champions is the liberating effect of art education on young and impressionable minds. She writes, “Art education is fundamentally based on play, on discovery and investigation – and having meaningful experiences!”
In ways that have both advantages and disadvantages, there are no right answers in art.
Concepts like success and development are hard to quantify in the arts but childhood development has been studied extensively and the place of the arts in human growth is well documented in these pages. The section on cognitive science and Viktor Lowenfeld’s definition of developmental stages as reflected in children’s drawings, is fascinating and, due to Branham’s illustrations, fun to read.
Although most of the book is devoted to art education, Branham also addresses education in general: its history, evolution, and place in society. While the value of good teachers is generally appreciated, support and understanding of their role in society is often overlooked.
What’s So Great About Art Anyway does a great job of showcasing the ways art education benefit cognitive and social development, but it also sheds light on what it feels like to be a teacher in America today. Here is Branham’s description of the school as workplace: “The atmosphere feels fraught with anxiety and body odor. The same tensions tug at the students, and the same concerns poke at the teachers. It’s the same everywhere. The institution of formal education has hardly changed since its inception.”
Recently, I attended to a wine-tasting party (think Tupperware party for drunks) where the rep from the winery was a teacher who, like 60% of American teachers, has a hard time making ends meet on that salary alone. Branham points out that in Finland “teachers’ wages are comparable to other prestigious occupations, like lawyers, doctors, and engineers” and that “there’s no shortage of teachers in countries who have invested in their training and ongoing support.” In America, teachers’ salaries have been declining since the 1990s and they now earn about 20% less than other college graduates who are similarly educated. The attrition rate of teachers in America is double that of countries like Finland, Singapore, or Canada.
The elephant in this book’s room is our nation’s current civil cold war. Teachers are on the “liberal” side of this war just as cops are on the “conservative” side, regardless of the individual beliefs of members of those professions. As long as both houses of Congress, the White House, and most governorships and state legislatures, are in the hands of Republicans, teachers will be seen as the enemy. De-regulation of the private sector, removing oversight of police departments, and a steadfast refusal to even audit the Pentagon are will be offset by draconian federal government involvement in classrooms and wombs.
Art, like teaching, is a suspect profession to the party in power today. As Eve L. Ewing points out in the New York Times, President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts has more to do with authoritarian politics than with economic concerns, as the money saved would equal 0.004 percent of the federal budget. Not for nothing does our presi
dent “love the uneducated.”
In dark days, like the ones we’re living through, art is often seen as frivolous, but wise people understand that these are the times when art serves its highest purpose. Leaders from across the centuries and the political spectrum have added their voices in support of the arts:
“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” Winston Churchill
“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization.” John F. Kennedy
“The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” George Washington