Author Interview: Howard Cannatella

The author of Why We Need Arts Education, one of this month’s reviewed books, talks at length about the book and why the importance of the arts shouldn’t be neglected in the curriculum.


Questions: Naomi Hodgson


Why did you decide to write this book: “Why We Need Arts Education”

Several reasons were involved.  As I saw it: we can never say enough about this subject matter.  From time-to-time we need to be reminded what arts education offers society.  I felt I had something worthwhile to add to such a debate.  It also seemed to me that present policies in education made it expedient to talk about this.   


The arts are touching in their majesty but not everyone appreciates sufficiently the value of this.  Although difficult to define, the good of art in education by common consent is a topic of public interest, so much so, that many theorists believe that art activity empowers education. But how does it do that?  We give up on the philosophy of arts in education too easily.  Too many education journals and websites ignore its importance.

The focus of my book is why we should be teaching the arts more than we do now, which relates to reasons why the arts should be taken more seriously in education.  Do we know, for instance, the advantages of arts education for education in general? While many of the advantages of an arts education relate to subject/discipline-level requirements, it is equally clear that many of the advantages of an arts education, in cross-disciplinary ways, lay in its aesthetic and socially expressed points of view.  

Certainly, the benefits of an arts education are sometimes difficult to quantify, but it helps enormously to know that arts education involves our senses, actions, imagination, reasons, knowledge, and concepts to guide the art activity in purposive, measured, and restrictive ways through whole-class and individual teaching interactions, which are shaped by and shape the student.  Hence, what may be difficult to quantify isn’t so difficult to quantify, within reason, when the student shows they are transforming and recreating what we see, hear, read, interpret, and make; the scenes of life that as a society we cherish dearly.

Many have claimed that the arts are essential to civilisation.  The problem is that successive governments have limited the opportunity of students to experience the arts properly. We resist the need for more social conformity in the world, and the arts in education call our attention to such matters.  This stamp of universality furnishing a free, flexible mind, treasuring the delights around us, awakening joy and commonality is not adequately grasped.  Louis Arnaud Reid remained uncomfortable about the arts being marginalised subjects in education.  Elliot Eisner, in 2005, stated that fine arts in the US had become a negligible subject.  The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, in 2011, declared that the arts in schools were on a downward trend.  James Rhodes, the concert pianist, remarked, in 2014, that children from disadvantaged backgrounds face enormous inequality in accessing music education, and the 2015 report by the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Values discovered that many students were opting out of taking GCSE’s in arts subjects. 

That art activity enlightens being in the word because it is creative is an understatement that can fall foul of the fact that the mind simply cannot work its magic without insight into people’s lives and desires.    In often memorable  ways, the arts in education, from every point of view imaginable, express materially, commonly, and individually our distinctive reflections of reality, truth, feeling, and fantasy .  The book examines how arts education, although contributing enormously to existence as a whole, squaring itself with society, expressing the very stirrings of our common good with our conflicts in meaningful, social reformist ways, is not widely understood in education and in our communities.  That is the perspective that I have taken in this book, by highlighting, pedagogically, various teaching instances that reveal some of the character of arts teaching in tenable ways.

Yet, even the sciences have finally come round to recognising the importance of the arts.  The medical profession are calling for doctors to have formal education in the arts believing that doctors need a comprehensive education in the humanities to enable them to become better doctors.  Hence, the medical profession recognises why arts education is relevant, because the arts express our human connections, empathy, stupidity, hopes, confusions, anxiety, problems, heartaches, distress, and fears.  That the arts can widen our sympathetic human feelings was regarded by John Stuart Mill, for instance, as incontrovertibly an aspect necessary for the common good in life.

I was not interested in what art alone can do.  Instead, I wanted to reassert the broader role of the arts in the education of a culture more representative and perspicuous of society.  The way the arts in education, for example, express our insight related to our lived experiences in satisfying, everyday, normal occurrences, is through stories, songs, objects, and images.  This relies on the teaching input that helps the students distinguish ideas, striking qualities, and properties in sophisticated and cultivated ways in their  art and that of other noted individuals, of things that matter communally, for their restorative portraits of life that are agreeable, pleasurable, beholding, expanding, and challenging.  I assert that arts education would benefit from more socially enriching reconstructed programmes of art in order to show how it can further the forces for living well in common, communal ways, which is arguably a wider topical issue in education. 


What’s the main aim of the book, and why is it important now? 

One of the main aims of the book concerns how the arts can drive up standards in education.  Easier said than done, of course.  Vicariously, the ease and joy that young children express in their dances, singing, poems or paintings, for example, can be misconstrued as low learner-like activity. But when we watch the teacher convey information dialogically, in interaction with these students, their imagination overflows and translates into meaningful action and results.  Therefore we cannot drive up standards in arts education without seizing on the notion that art is free, which means that the determining ground of art activity involves the free-play of our cognitive faculties simultaneous with how the arts in education are habitually and commonly taught, binding and transforming the social ties we share in society.  That teaching and learning in the arts can be quite profound is something I attempt to explain.  “Why is it important now”, because of the reasons I have already outlined and because it still hasn’t got through yet to enough people just how the arts in education make an invaluable contribution to society. 

To drive up standards in education, we know, involves developing ways to advance student capabilities.  And to do that involves expressing certain principles of an art, adopted as appropriate to the art lesson in hand, explored in gradually enlarging and explicit theatrical, visible, musical, and poetic making activities presented to the students who are busy deepening their art productions in particular and singular ways via ideas, perceptions, actions, spontaneity, reasons, and feelings.  In the process of doing so, a crucial aspect of arts education is that the students adjust to the world with sentiments that are closer to our lives because the student has learnt to pay attention to appearances and notions, to draw upon their imaginative experiences, their personality and kindred feelings, in sensitive and realistic convergences. 

Arts education is artless without the integration of schematisation, technicality, spontaneity, invention, and classical mimetic understanding being demanded of the student.  In communicative ways the teacher of the art helps the student to express the “irreplaceable in our lives [and their lives]”, as Luc Ferry remarks.  That arts education expands our consciousness and intellect, and reinforces our beliefs and perceptions, is often recognised but never followed through with the kind of inclusion that is needed to be formatively substantial in the infant and teenage years of education.   


And what is it that draws you, personally, to this area of research?  

I was trained in art and design and I have currently over 20 years teaching experience in arts education.  Although he is no longer with us, it was Emeritus Professor Leslie Perry of the Institute of Education who inspired me on this path and my PhD in 1996.


What sort of reaction do you hope the book will get?  Some agreement.  But as Shakespeare mentions in Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’.


What is your current project?  What’s next?  

I have just finished a paper that is due to be published in the summer of 2016 in The Journal of Aesthetic Education: ‘Building Public Confidence in Arts Education’, which in a developmental and supplemental manner is in line with some of my thinking in this new book of mine.  Moving on, I am now investigating:   the importance of moral-aesthetic understanding in arts education.


What is philosophy of education and why does it matter? 

Philosophy of education is the art and science of analysing, understanding, arguing, clarifying, asking, conceiving and answering with critical, judicious insight of past, present and future conceptions of education, taking account of pertinent constructions and misconstructions, explaining, and reaching conclusions that are of relevance to the education profession.  “Why does it matter”? For all of the above reasons in this interview.  Philosophy of education concerns a better understanding of educational issues.  What is education and why should children learn, are all philosophical issues, because in part they are conceptual questions.  If someone says more testing of students is required we might want to get to the bottom of this by asking what problems is it supposed to solve, explanations concerning evidence and is it appropriate, for example.  Similarly, in order to answer the questions, ‘how should we teach subject X and why should we teach subject X in a public system of education’, a philosophical conceptual response is likely to be involved.  When someone says these are the core subjects in education, we should examine this in a philosophical, educational, questioning manner to see whether we can agree or disagree on the assumed merited notion of core subjects and whether these core subjects are good for education.  Any philosophy of education society will see its affairs as fundamentally concerned with standards in education.


Read a review of Why We Needs Arts Education here.