What is art education’s answer to the refugee crisis?

By Edwin van Meerkerk

Over the pas few years the arts sector has found an answer to the austerity measures and the economist paradigms underlying the budget cuts, in the endorsement of the notion of value. Art and culture have, it is claimed, a value that goes beyond monetary output and economic growth. Its value lies on the social level, by the development and promotion of empathy and a sense of community, as well as on a cultural level, by fostering understanding for cultural differences, as well as strengthening cultural self-awareness.

In arts education, these claims have resounded strongly. What is more, they have joined forces with a third positive outcome of engaging in cultural activities: cognitive skills and multiple intelligences. These positive effects of the arts: social, cultural, and cognitive have met with little qualitative opposition, although true curriculum or policy change appears to be much slower than the endorsement of the notion of cultural value.

But now the arts in general, and arts education in particular, are facing a challenge that forces us to stand for our claims. The refugee crisis that holds the Near East, Northern Africa, and Europe in its grip, may well be the greatest challenge to western society since the end of colonialism (or maybe it shows that colonialism has not yet fully ended, but that is another discussion).

The refugee crisis may have deep economic and political causes, yet as a crisis it is predominantly social and cultural in nature. This is the crisis that takes the shape of people crossing borders, people living in camps, but also of angry people on the streets, volunteers distributing clothes, food, and toys. That part of the crisis is nothing but social and cultural. 

The arts, the cultural sector, arts education, has to stand up for its claim to have cultural and social value if this claim is worth anything. But what is it we are to do? How does one foster empathy through art in the middle of a crisis? How can cultural differences be celebrated when one party is hungry, tired, and homesick, and the other is scared, uncertain, even angry?

How can an arts teacher enter her or his class tomorrow and make a beginning in solving the social and cultural crisis that has entered the hearts and minds of the students in class? Where do we begin? I don’t know the answer. What I do know, is that it is a question that must be asked, and it must be asked now, from all of us.

This essay was first published on http://cultwise.tumblr.com/post/131576809544/what-is-arts-educations-answer-to-the-refugee