Arts Integration: A Historical Perspective

By Think 360 Artist, Andrea Pakieser

700 years ago, the culture of Renaissance humanism flourished, inspiring new educational approaches that diverged from the dogmatic utilitarianism of Medieval Europe. Guided by the belief that education could improve society, Renaissance-era teachers trained their students in poetry, mathematics, music, astronomy…a novel combination of traditional academic subjects and the arts. We still use the expression “Renaissance man/woman” today to refer to someone whose talents span a wide variety of fields.

The Renaissance represented a new moment in European history, when arts education became required education for all students. Although mathematics and poetry classes were not integrated, they were treated with equal priority. The impact of this change was minimal, however, as most forms of general education remained reserved to children of upper-class families until modern times.

When nation states began forming in the 18th and 19th centuries, governments began to fund free and, eventually, compulsory education for children. As the American school system grew larger and more complex, thinkers began developing more robust educational models.

Terms such as “integrated curriculum”, “correlated curriculum”, “fused curriculum”, and “project curriculum” began to appear in the early 1900s. All of these terms were created to challenge the school system’s reliance on drawing thick lines between subject areas, a reliance many believed was outdated and limiting. The works of educational reformer John Dewey date back to this era: Dewey created progressive educational models that emphasized democratic principles, arguing that involvement in the arts could play an important role in everyday education.

Inspired by Dewey, the National Council of Teachers of English published a report in 1936 entitled “A Correlated Curriculum“. This was followed by Leon Winslow’s 1939 book The Integrated School Art Program. Although educational reform was not the highest priority of the late 1930s, an initial framework for arts integration had been established, and would be expanded upon in the 1960s.

The Kennedy administration did much to focus national attention on the arts, creating the position of Special Consultant on the Arts to advise the White House on cultural affairs in 1962. In 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts was founded with the specific mandate to “provide leadership in arts education”. A slew of curriculum theorists and educational philosophers – James Beane, Cassandra Whyte, Harry Broudy, Elliot Eisner, to name a few – produced work that showed how integrated curriculum, particularly arts integrated curriculum, represented the future of American education.

Over the past few decades, some of the most convincing arguments for arts integration have come from the sciences. From Howard Gardner’s 1983 book Theory of Multiple Intelligences, to James. Catterall’s 1997 study linking arts involvement to higher academic achievement, to the Kennedy Center’s recent research confirming that arts integration boosts students’ problem solving skills, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that arts education positively impacts, or even predicts, academic success.

As educators often face funding, political, and capacity challenges in integrating the arts into their classrooms, it may be comforting to take a step back and see things from a historical perspective: we’re just beginning to truly understand the importance of creativity for developing young minds, but the evidence so far is promising.