In the mid-20th century, most children in public schools were exposed to the arts through weekly classes taught by specialists in music and visual arts. Sometimes a classroom teacher would put on a play, and on occasion students would be introduced to the world of dance. In recent decades, state property tax cuts and a focus on literacy and math skills in K–12 curriculum have pushed the arts further into the background. Arts education persists today through educators finding innovative ways to integrate the arts inside and outside of the classroom. The belief that the arts are an essential part of a well-rounded educational experience is key to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Arts in Education (AIE) Program.
“Everyone here feels passionately about the significance of art in the lives of young people,” said Program Director and Lecturer Steve Seidel, who is also director of Project Zero, a research group dedicated to understanding and enhancing learning, thinking, and creativity in the arts.“The faculty and students in this program recognize that there are powerful opportunities for children to learn in and through the arts in all kinds of settings — schools, of course, but also afterschool programs, museums, parks, libraries, community arts centers — wherever people who love the arts can find a decent space.”
Now in its 12th year, AIE attracts 45–50 students each year. Seidel recognizes that the yearlong program goes by quickly for these students, but the lively sense of community they form during orientation week seems to endure beyond graduation. “We are consciously building a national network of graduates, friends, and professional associates,” he says.
Seidel shares the vision of Professor Howard Gardner and former HGSE professor Jessica Davis, two Project Zero researchers, who in the 1990s encouraged the school to create a master’s program focused on the study of the role of the arts in education. The goal was to establish a program that reflected the diversity of the field itself, bringing artists, teaching artists, researchers, administrators, classroom teachers, and out-of-school educators together for a year of study on the foundational issues that inform all aspects of arts education theory and practice.
The program encourages students to create a strong, broad foundational understanding of the arts and learning. In consecutive core courses on “Learning in and through the Arts” and “Research, Policy, and Practice,” students build the foundation for their professional identities as advocates for the multidisciplinary application of the arts, building on this groundwork with courses from other programs at HGSE and other schools at Harvard. This combination of a core focus on arts education with the flexibility to study broadly in the rich offerings of HGSE attracts many students to the program.
“I was really looking for a program that would blend the various fields I wanted to work in into one space,” says Srivi Kalyan, Ed.M.’07. “As I looked through various programs, I felt that the AIE Program at HGSE brought together philosophy, education, arts, and had a very explorative, investigative feel to it.”
Kalyan was particularly drawn to courses taught by Seidel, because they promised to mix “creative wondering about the essence and quality of the arts and a deep probing into ways in which these abstract ideas could be applied, executed, or researched.”
AIE faculty and advisors encourage students to experience all aspects of HGSE. For instance, Seidel says students who are interested in the management of nonprofit organizations, the use of the arts for students with special needs, or the democratization of the arts at the grassroots or governmental level can take relevant classes outside of the program to expand their own learning.
Kalyan, an illustrator and writer who recently returned to India to work as a creative director for Sesame Street, agrees the self-directed aspect of the AIE Program allowed her to design her studies as she wished.
The freedom for students to define their own curriculum works well considering the diverse backgrounds of students who come to AIE; not everyone who walks through the doors of AIE is a painter or performer. “By no means do all of our students identify as professional artists,” Seidel says. “But they do all tend to identify as educators who recognize the artistic potential of each person.”
“We all come from different disciplines,” say Vivienne MeerBergen, Ed.M.’98, “whether practicing artists, classroom teachers, development officers, or administrators, and we go on to do multiple things that you might not have known ever existed.”
The diverse backgrounds and interests of students continued after graduation with many AIE alums working in different settings. A study from 1996 – 2003 tracked 175 AIE Alumni to the following careers:
- 33 percent teaching
- 23 percent higher education
- 21 percent museum/cultural institutions
- 17 percent arts administration/development
- 6 percent other
Undoubtedly, diversity and freedom are part of what makes AIE unique, but as MeerBergen adds, there is also something special about the people. “All the teachers and professors that I had were all very passionate about what they do. It comes through in the teaching,” she says. “I think it was really inspiring. I learned a lot from students, and the people [who you meet there] really make HGSE a great place to study and be connected with afterwards.”