The Arts in Higher Education as a Vehicle for Social Change: Right vs. Wide

LEE, Nancy (2008)

Higher education institutions constitute an apparently privileged space within which society can question, experiment with and even confront itself. In theory, they can be an environment for creative endeavour. However, numerous contradictions encountered in practice hinder or even impede this being the case. In this article, Nanci Lee underlines the potential and creativity that the combination of arts and higher education can offer. Through the use of examples and different voices, the author reveals and interprets the real experiences that show how this combination can be a vehicle for social change. Nanci Lee has collaborated with the Universities and Social Commitment Observatory and forms part of the Scientific Committee of the next GUNI Conference for the thematic line on Higher education, arts and creativity. - Nanci Lee

Introduction: a splash of cold water

Higher educational institutions are considered centres of critical and creative thought that correspondingly lead to human and social development for the betterment of society. Let us consider for a shuddering moment where, in fact, the reverse might be true.
Several decades ago Ivan Illich, an Austrian social philosopher, offered a harsh critique of educational institutions, higher education institutions in particular. He claimed not only that creativity is absent in these institutions. He asserted that these very educational institutions themselves stifle creativity and a more defiant imagination (Max Wyman coined this phrase in his recent book by the same name) that helps people and societies challenge their realities. He describes the inherent contradiction of educational institutions. On one hand, the university is necessary to guarantee continued social criticism but the university itself is a microcosm for forms of institutionalization that he claims jeopardize learning. He reasons:
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new (...) Imagination is schooled to accept service in place of value (...) social work for the improvement of community life. Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends (...) (Illich, 1971, pg. 1).
Illich follows the footsteps of Antonio Gramsci and Augusto Boal who, in their own ways, called for more radical and democratic forms of intellectual expression and debate that are inherent in community and collective spaces. Illich argued that the very process of institutionalization within education undermines people, their confidence and their ability to solve problems. Institutionalization undermines social life in general. The almost obsessive focus of academe on experts and expertise creates a system of barricades and gatekeepers. Few decide what knowledge matters and what society should do with it. In this context, learning becomes “commodified,” as he called it, and like any commodity, scarce. Jane Jacobs, a Canadian social philosopher who writes about urban planning offered a similar line of argument in her recent book The Dark Age Ahead. In it she warns that we are in danger of losing community. She links this decline with the observation that our educational institutions have become “credentialized.” There is more a focus on individual specialization and achieving certain credentials than engaging imagination or creativity to better our communities. More focus on right than wide.
As a recent instructor in a university, a so-called “expert,” I offer this splash of cold water to us not as a criticism but as a springboard for serious reflection in our higher education communities and ourselves as educators. It is a haunting but crucial question: are we part of the problem? Does the very nature of higher educational institutions, in some ways, work against their ability to catalyze social change? Where are the hopeful spaces?
Arts in Higher Education Institutions: a springboard to social change?
The arts has certainly been one of these spaces. Arts, in particular, in higher education are considered powerful means to social change and development. Darlene Clover, a professor of education, has a helpful frame for arts in education with two key yet overlapping areas: arts in education (music, writing, dance, visual arts, design, textiles etc.); or arts-based inquiry (for example, the use of participatory photography in research). Arts can be such a broad and fluid area, it is important to understand where, and under what circumstances, arts have acted as a catalyst for broader change.
Adam Gopnik, an expert on museums, distinguishes different roles of museums that is useful here. He describes the battle between museum as mausoleum (past), museum as mall (commodity) and museum as metaphor (meaningful). Where art moves beyond a dusty tribute to the past, a product that is bought or sold, it has the capacity to make meaning at individual and shared levels. Peter Taylor and Jude Fransman (2004: 11) of the International Development Studies Program at the University of Sussex, have written about the role of higher educational institutions as agents of social change. They describe three types of transformations through learning processes:
- Individual (personal level)
- Social (recasting realities at household, community, regional, national or global level)
- Discursive (challenging and opening for debate the underlying assumptions, values and world views behind knowledge and learning)
For this paper, it is useful to consider the social and discursive forms, change that moves beyond the individual person. There are many arguments why art can be a powerful springboard to social change. The following are some contributions that were made during an e-dialogue on this topic through the Learning and Teaching for Transformation (LTT) group through the International Development Studies Program, Sussex University. Arts can transformative because they:
- Break down barriers to broad participation- level the playing field. Anyone can participate.
- There is no right or wrong.
- Deal better with sensitive topics
- Are provocative rather than didactic
- Are stimulating and fun!
Kerka put it well. “The arts, which stand to the side of daily life, allow the expression of self and social tensions in this safe way” (2003: 4). But surely the arts in education can fall to the same forms of institutionalization, credentialization and commodification? Perhaps not? The following are some examples of arts in education and arts-based inquiry that seem to move beyond these challenges. These examples of art applications are not ivory-tower or elitist, not self-gratifying. They genuinely seem to move the art to a broader, collective plane.
Example 1. Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Digital Archive project: Narratives that Heal.
Researched and created by Carolina Robertson, the Digital Archive Project contains universal stories of survival and healing from particular communities across the globe: an ivory carver and farmer in Ghana, a Hawaiian woman who composed more than 300 songs, many of which are standard hits in the modern hula repertoire, an Argentine social psychologist detained and tortured during his country’s Dirty War, who teaches workshops about the hidden art that emerges as a tool for survival, even in the worst human conditions (Kerka, 2003: 7).
Example 2: University of Michigan- The Arts of Citizenship
This is a partnership between the University of Michigan and a local theatre company. The partnership includes children’s theatre productions of oral histories of elderly Detroit residents (Kerka, 2003). In this way, it not only combines art and academe but also crosses generations in its application and expression.
Example 3: Quilt as Social Text on Silence (University of Alberta)
In this innovative thesis, Ball (2002) uses an arts-based methodology in a qualitative study that explores silence and silencing through quilt-making. She conducted research with trauma survivors in Newfoundland using the creation of a quilt as her main method for data collection. Ball cleverly explored silence not only in terms of the trauma survivors but also in examining the methodology of her research. She claims that our way of social writing has maintained silence, through the use of our neutral, impervious language. In her thesis, Ball challenges us to move “from isolated individualist paths lacking in connection with community to a move beyond what we challenging how we know and how we represent what we know” (Ball, 2002: 24, en Clover, 2006: 53).
Example 4:  York University and participatory photography in Nicaragua
The Environmental Studies Department with funding from a research body (International Development Research Centre) engaged in popular communications workshops in Nicaragua. Intrigued by the photo-stories the university had produced on immigrant workers in Canada, the Ministry of Education invited them to do the same with their Ministry. During the Sandinista revolution, Deborah Barndt, a professor and photographer, organized workshops for the Ministry of Education using participatory photography. She also trained popular photojournalists who were producing a magazine for new literates, especially rural workers. In 2001, a graduate student from the university facilitated the production of community radio with a natural resource management project. These were all attempts to bring together the “professional” and the “community,” the practical and the political (Barndt and Mackenzie, 2006).
Of course, this is more an illustrative over an exhaustive list of hopeful examples. However, some reflection on what makes these initiatives intriguing is still helpful.  A few key points stand out that raise others. These initiatives are on the edges of the university and made possible by connectors but do not end there. They are focused on lateral sharing through collections and collective expression rather than the expertise of an individual. In this way, they are also action-oriented.
On the Edges: What is notable about these examples is that they are often not initiated at the university level and if they are, they do not stop there. This is the first indication of the humility of the higher educational institutions involved. Not only do they not profess to be the sole agency of knowledge. They actively reach out to other agencies. It does not generally occur from a policy at the university. Rather there is a department or likely a professor that initiates the change. It is, if you like, the tail wagging the dog.
Made Possible by Connectors: There is often a hinge person or catalyst involved. Importantly, it is not about their status or expertise but their role as connector that supports the artistic process for social change. Many are artist-academics and, in this way, bridge the two worlds. These connectors are also, then, aware of the challenges of balancing participation, impact and academic standards.
Lateral and Collective: Perhaps the most important distinguishing factor of these examples is that they focus on collections and collectives rather than individual expertise. Collections such as oral histories stress the many and the lateral nature of learning. They show the varied and multi-faceted nature of artistic expression and in doing so the many truths of knowledge. In this way, the artistic activities are both democratic and participatory. Illich described one of the solutions to non-institutionalized learning is webs and networks that allow anyone to offer their expertise and anyone to access (llich, 1970).
Challenge- Right vs. Wide: One of the key challenges that emerged in many of the examples is the tension between getting the artistic piece, whether a radio production or a community mural, and ensuring that the participation is wide, the impact wider. There is an inherent tension between so-called “rigour” and participation. The first, found in higher educational institutions leads to thesis defences and panel presentations. The second by the very nature of its widening involves more iteration and therefore perhaps less refinement. It depends, of course, on what one considers rigorous or refined. Is a community mural involving hundreds that creates pride and ownership any less rigorous than a watercolour by a master painter? Phil Waters, a contributor to the e-dialogue on arts and transformative education, told a story about a young girl who was painting with the wrong side of the paintbrush. She was, not surprisingly, corrected by her teacher. Waters questioned what was lost in that correction. What is lost in seeking what is "right" or "correct?" How do these norms affect expression? Universities and higher educational institutions must uphold quality and therefore determine standards for what is right. But is there enough wide?
Open questions
These are just a few stories. I know there are countless more. My apologies that many of these examples are based in North America. As I am from Canada, these are closest to my knowledge and experience. I am aware of the pervasive use of song and dance in Africa, theatre of the oppressed in Latin America, puppetry in the Caribbean. If anyone has inspiring or hopeful stories to add it would be a pleasure to expand the article. This is a dialogue and sharing that must continue.
We are left, then, with Ivan Illich’s stinging claims and many singing examples to prove him wrong. But there are questions left for each of us:
- Are we a connector? Are we waiting for quietly for administration to change? Or is there a tail to be wagging?
- Have we been to the edges lately? Ever? Are there interesting community and social projects with which to flirt? Museums, galleries that can complement, help to craft our analysis and bridge it to dialogue?
- Have we found the right balance between right and wide?
Saying it otherwise: which side of the paintbrush do you use?
If none of the frameworks or, hopefully, neatly laid out arguments have appealed to you, let me appeal to the other side of your brain. This was a poem written by the collective contributions of the LTT dialogue on arts in education. True of art, it says in a few short words perhaps more than the entire article could say:
Found Poem from Contributions On the Transformative Power of Arts, Learning and Teaching for Transformation E-Dialogue (University of Sussex, IDS).
The role of art is not only to show how the world is, but also why it is thus, and how it can be transformed— Augusto Boal
Kalimba, gardening,
dance, drama, drawing
games and quilts and play-
work. We have spoken. Pre
verbal poets. Embodied.
I felt it
in my body. Stuck
at it.
The change came
slowly. Had to tackle
my own demons. No idea
what I am talking about
as yet but
I sense it.
Earth movers. Resonance-
connected to art and
knowing and insight.
Freedom to
be something other
than prescribed. To be
Which side of the paintbrush
do you use? Art may allow
coherence but only if
The role of the circle is
to protect the lamb.
This is an invitation. Remove
the language. Play with
zippers. Dance vermilion. Sand
radiata off-cuts. Include. Write
something- about trees, about
pastoralism, about peace.
Surprise.  We have spoken.
Ball, H.K. (2002). Subversive Materials: Quilt as Social Text. The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, XLIII (3). [CD-ROM] in Clover et al. 2006.
Brandt, Deborah and Christine Mackenzie. “Whose Nicaragua? Popular Communications across Eras, Regions and Generations” in Deborah Brandt (Ed). 2006. Wild Fire: Art as Activism. Toronto, Canada: Sumach Press.
Clover, Darlene, Odette Laramee and Kathy Linker. 2006. State of the Field Report: Culture and Education. British Columbia, Canada: University of British Columbia.
Goprick, Adam. January 31, 2007. “Do you prefer theatres where you can sit or museums where you can talk?,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Ideas Program. Toronto, Canada: Royal Ontario Museum.
Illich, Ivan. 1973. De-schooling Society. Accessed Online at made possible by Paul Knatz.
Jacobs, Jane. 2004. Dark Age Ahead. New York, United States of America: Random House.
Kerka, Sandra. 2003. “Adult Learning in and through the Arts” in ERIC Digest.  Toronto: Canada.
Learning and Teaching for Transformation Dialogue. International Development Studies Program, University of Sussex.

About the author

Nanci Lee is an educator, a poet and a cooperative/microfinance consultant. Formerly she taught at the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada. She is currently self-employed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


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