Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What would Gandhi do?

Last night in class we discussed Gandhi. We read A Higher Standard of Leadership: Lessons from the Life of Gandhi, by Keshavan Nair, an excellent and readable book that reflects on Gandhi. Nair notes that young Gandhi read and was heavily influenced by John Ruskin’s essays, “Unto This Last”. I know of Ruskin as a modest visual artist but he was also a 19th century thinker and writer. While not all of Ruskin’s points were adopted by Gandhi, the idea that “all work has the same value” struck him.

Ok, so what does this have to do with us and arts education? Follow me through this. The recent Coburn Amendment to the federal stimulus package removed arts organizations of all stripes from eligibility. This struck a huge nerve, of course, in the arts community because to many of us it suggested that somehow our work – our jobs - did not hold the same value as others. Subtext - our work was not worthwhile. Fortunately, arts jobs were included in the final package, including funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. But the initial blow landed.

In light of this national kick-in-the-pants, we need to consider Ruskin’s idea of “all work has the same value”. We very much want our work and our art forms to share equal status with other areas of education. We expect to be fairly compensated for this work. I think this is particularly important in an ethical framework as fair compensation has historically eluded artists and arts educators. We should expect our work and our contributions to schools to be equally valued.
Gandhi would probably support this expectation on our part but I suspect he would also ask us how we are meeting that same challenge. Do we arts education folks also value all work equally? Do we see our own work as special, elevated and different? It would be easy to. The arts can transcend and illuminate. But that could also be a trap that allows us to believe our air is more rarified. Do we recognize that all work has value? Nair calls this “meeting responsibilities while insisting on rights”. Are we willing to do what we are asking of others?

Another possible standard…

- Adequate compensation for arts education work.
Recognizing that work in arts education is a professional undertaking, requiring education and experience, teachers and artists should be compensated in accordance with other professionals across the curriculum.


  1. I appreciate your comments that the arts are not always seen as a "legitimate" profession. I experienced this personally a couple of weeks ago at a public meeting. The funding agency stated that sporting events were a higher priority for funding. They did not see arts & culture institutions as drivers of tourism to the San Diego region, even though several studies have shown that cultural tourism has a huge positive benefits to San Diego's economy. It was very disheartening.

  2. It is puzzling that despite solid evidence about the variety of impacts the arts and culture make (economic, social, academic) we are still fighting for legitimacy. I find it ironic that sporting events receive higher funding from the city when professional teams often move from city to city. Museums stay put. They don't relocate for a better deal to another community.

    I think of Gandhi and his non-violent resistance to British occupation of India. I wonder what kinds of non-violent resistance the arts community could undertake?