Not long ago a couple artist friends and I were discussing how we were actually discouraged from our interests in art as we passed through elementary and high school. We decided this was not so much a problem in larger schools as it was in the many small to medium size school districts up through at least the mid-1960s. They faulted teachers both individually and perhaps even as a group for this despicable sin. Even though I agreed with much of what they said, my natural inclination as a former teacher is to dispute this claim.
I neglected to ask where they went to elementary and high school, but I think in blaming teachers for discouraging and even preventing art has to be framed in the context of forty years ago and serves to illustrate just how far arts education has come in the intervening years. By the same token, I too, went through what they were talking about. As a student in the fifth grade, I liked to write stories and illustrate them with drawings. My teacher confiscated them and burned them in the school's fiery furnace. I had vocal music in elementary, and band in high school, but no art classes at all during my school career. l graduated high school in 1963, by the way. Only during the last year in high school did I begin drawing portraits (self-taught). Morgan County, Ohio consolidated their high schools in 1967 and only then did they begin high school art classes. It was the 1980s before they hired two travelling elementary art teachers.
Before that, outside of larger school districts (and most weren't large back then), art was considered a frivolous pursuit, not worth academic attention (or the associated economic investment), and even a distraction from normal scholastic studies. And while this undoubtedly led to much of the current art ignorance we find today, and may well have discouraged a number of students from exploring their art interest, it probably also served to weed out very many mediocre, would-be artists without the dedication and drive so important to success in today's art world. In other words, the need to create, to become an artist, is not a fragile thing. In fact we might even call it overwhelming within those individuals most likely to succeed in art. On the surface, restraining the artist within us during adolescence may seem to be a bad thing, and indeed, probably postpones its surfacing. Amongst girls especially, this may have a profound effect career-wise (given their motherly proclivities); but it is usually not fatal to its eventual flowering. I'm sure amongst my older friends, there are many living examples of this.
On the other side of the coin, as a veteran art teacher, I've seen good art students succeed in class, go to good art schools, and then crash and burn out when faced with the hard-nosed, "little fish in a big pond" realities of trying to make a go of it as artists (or even just as serious art students). I've come to the conclusion that we may well be coddling these kids in our state-of-the-art programs, encouraging them to the point of building within them a false self-concept of their potential that sooner or later smacks up hard against the brutal reality that art is really a very difficult line of work, for very modest pay (initially at least); and despite lots of early training and encouragement, building upon some degree of talent, that these alone are not enough.
Am I suggesting we do away with adolescent art programs or in some way screen their ranks? Of course not (though I've seen times when the latter of these alternatives seemed very attractive). This course would lead to totally career-oriented art education; which flies in the face of every American educational principle today. Adolescence should be a time of broadening student interests rather than narrowing them. In spite of this, my point is that I'm not so sure for what some of our early, "unenlightened" schoolteachers didn't inadvertently do us a favour in forcing us to prove our dedication to art sooner (in bucking their efforts) rather than later (after an expensive college education). I know it worked that way for me.