Wouldn't it be great if we could read a couple of books on brain surgery and be ready to perform an operation? In arts education, that is the type of miraculous feat we often expect from our teachers.
Every academic discipline requires a unique intellectual function - from quantitative reasoning to philosophical inquiry. The arts are no different. Dance requires a physical-kinesthetic brain function; music requires an auditory function; visual art requires a visual-spacial brain function; and drama incorporates a combination of several, including the verbal-linguistic function that is important to the literary arts.
The college and university curriculum in each arts discipline is rigorous and, indeed, it takes a lifetime to acquire mastery in one subject area. Yet when it comes to teaching students who do not have a background in any of the arts, we create interdisciplinary arts courses that provide a superficial overview - usually from a historical perspective. These types of courses become tantamount to taking a tourist approach to the arts, sometimes referred to as intellectual voyeurism.
There can be merit to interdisciplinary arts courses that focus on breadth instead of depth. Some of these approaches are bridged courses such as "Shakespeare and Art" where an English professor team-teaches with an art professor to provide a learning experience in both subject areas. In this case, there are two experts in two separate disciplines providing students with connections and understanding between the literary and visual arts. We as a society, however, have assumed that we can provide adequate coverage of an interdisciplinary arts course by allowing one instructor who probably has been trained in one arts discipline (sometimes a non-arts teacher from a related field who just likes the arts) to teach the course. This approach usually has a budget issue at the root of the decision and there is a complacency among us that tends to rationalize this out by saying, "At least the students are having some exposure to the arts."
The prevalent attitude towards the arts would never be acceptable in other fields - the medical field being an obvious example. While we would want the best experts training our future medical professionals for brain surgery and the treatment of diseases, we should also want the best experts training the life of the minds of our children in the arts. Whether or not we continue to fund and support interdisciplinary arts education, or whether we fund and support the teaching of each art separately, we must make sure that our students have the benefit of learning the unique characteristics of each art medium from the very best experts in their fields.
Kerry Hart is dean of the Colorado Mountain College Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs. His education commentaries appear in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.