Culturally Relevant Arts Education for Social Justice: A Way Out of No Way

Reviewed by Mayumi Tsutakawa

Edited by Mary Stone Hanley, George W. Noblit, Gilda L. Sheppard, and Thomas Barone. 2013, 258 pages, Routledge

This book sits at the “progressive” end of the spectrum of thinking about the value of arts in American education. In the field of regional and national arts funding, specialists in arts education are involved with new research assessing the value and benefits of arts training in the development of our youth populations in America. No doubt this book will contribute greatly to a field of education that is struggling to address the tremendous demographic shifts of the US public school population. The disadvantages experienced by the many new immigrant and non-English-speaking children are compounded when schools provide little or no arts training as a means to nurture creativity, free expression, identity development, and articulation skills. As the editors say, “truth seeking and truth making” are the two goals of Culturally Relevant Arts Education for Social Justice.

The anthology’s structure and contents are amazing, given what most think is a paucity of research and scholarship in the field of arts and social justice in education. The fact that the editors received 236 proposals in response to their call for articles bodes well. The editors could choose only twenty or so contributions, but clearly scholars are beginning to write and publish with a focus on this subject. This book will serve as the first step in highlighting the growth in this area.

The book’s major strengths and distinctive features are the new and refreshing materials the editors are introducing to the field of arts in education. In this effort, the unique phrases and strengths of the writing of editor Gilda L. Sheppard stand out. It is rare that a book brings together the progressive perspectives of African American and other scholars of color, who have researched and presented meaningful examples of arts and social justice that benefit average schoolchildren. This book offers a point of view that is essential for the beleaguered teaching community.

The primary audiences for this book will be college professors and their students who are seeking new perspectives on achieving success in the engagement and involvement of public school students in their studies and in achieving long-term success. Secondary audiences will be arts organization program managers, philanthropic foundations, government arts funders, social workers, public school teachers and administrators, and daycare or youth program workers.

Obviously the market for this book’s subject is growing. Given the quickly changing demographics of our public schools and our nation, the education field and those who work in it are hungry and often desperate for new thinking pointing to ways to improve the classroom performance of low-income, rural, and foreign-born students, students of color, and in some cases students with disabilities. Surely college faculty and students in the education field are eager to encounter new and progressive theories and research, as well as concrete examples that propose solutions not just for underachieving students but also for the downward direction of so many youths of color. The education field, and public schools in particular, must develop new strategies to engage the majority of students of color, and to ensure their success, for our nation desperately needs leaders who can face tomorrow’s challenges with confidence, clear thinking, and relevant skills.