A Reflection on Historical Debates and Contemporary Realities | From the 1960s Archive

Writer Thomas Bell and Editor Lena Cirillo

In the archives of the Art Education Victoria office lie decades of rich history encapsulated in the newsletters of the Art Teacher’s Association Victoria (ATAV), now Art Education Victoria Incorporated.

These newsletters and articles, spanning over 60 years from the 1960s to the present, serve as a testament to the enduring advocacy for the value of art education and the status of art teachers. As we delve into these archives, we uncover a wealth of insights that resonate with the challenges and aspirations of art education today.

One recurring theme that emerges from the early 1960s newsletters is the quest for the recognition and prestige of art teachers within the broader educational landscape. Recently, with the pandemic raising in the public consciousness the essential and challenging work teachers perform, this topic has taken on renewed significance. Following the debates taking place throughout the 1960s allows us to understand the sentiments of the time, and perhaps provides insights into art education today.

D.T Parker, a former art educator in May 1962 suggested the introduction of academic dress for art teachers, reflecting a desire to elevate their status within the profession.

“Too long the art teacher has felt out of place among the gowns etc at schools and speech nights. The department should recognise some form of academic dress for teachers of art…. I visualise a graduate’s gown (black) with purple additions…”

Ken Scarlett, a former art educator from Melbourne High School responded to Parker’s proposal in June of the same year:

“The suggestion in the last issue of ATAV news sheet that academic dress be instituted for art teachers has about as much logic as the suggestion that an artist should grow a beard before he begins to paint.”

These debates, while confined to the pages of newsletters in the 1960s, mirror the spirited discussions that now permeate social media platforms. They remind us that the quest for recognition and respect is not merely a contemporary concern, but a perennial one deeply rooted in the history of art education.

Lexie Luly a former art educator from Presbyterian Ladies College writes in relation to prerequisites for university entrance in March 1962:

“…the University insists on including Art in the D grouping of subjects for intermediate and leaving pass… Surely with Art Appreciation which ranges through history, archaeology, religion and many other fields, it should be raised to the Humanities of Group B…  Most of our knowledge of the ancient world is based on painting and sculpture…(which) should encourage and raise the status of the subject in schools.”

To which Marjorie Holder a former art educator from Balwyn High School replies in May 1962:

“… to say that a subject involves intellectual and aesthetic sensitivity, sometimes of very high order is not the same thing as saying it is entitled to be grouped with the humanities…
The grouping in the handbook belongs exclusively to the traditional function of the Humanities, the study of man’s activities from the point of view of dispassionate evaluation, not of involvement, or active participation in them.

If we are seeking admission to the ranks of the Humanities, we must accept their traditional limitations… this will inevitably mean an increase of the literal content. And would automatically exclude practice of Art above the fourth year… If it is merely a matter of prestige, I think the loss of the promising and intelligent from practice, for them and for us, is too high a price to pay.

There is a great deal we have yet to accomplish in the practical arts before we can afford to abandon them to literary domination for the sake of prestige.”

Indeed, the tension between the academic and practical dimensions of art education persists to this day. While universities and conservatories grapple with divergent approaches, high schools navigate a delicate balance between cultivating analytical skills and nurturing creative expression. The Victorian Government’s emphasis on critical thinking in visual arts underscores this holistic approach.

“To make and respond through practice includes the ability to interpret, infer, connect, explain, reflect, and story, all integral to knowing in Visual Arts.” (Victorian Department of Education 2024).

Though the tension between the humanities and practical arts continues to shape curricular decisions, these choices appear to be for benefit of artistic practice, rather than for the purpose of raising the profile of arts departments within schools.

Perhaps the proposition to raise the profile of visual arts teachers within the teaching profession is now outdated. This goal, even in the 1960’s was seen by some as misled. Ken Scarlett in June 1962 wrote:

“Why are art teachers so self-conscious? Over the last few years, a number of propositions have been put forward by art teachers in an endeavour to raise the status of art as a subject in schools and to raise the professional prestige of art teachers.

Art teachers must see themselves firstly as members of the broad teaching profession and to do everything in their power to raise the general status of teachers.
It is very clear that the present salaries inside the Education Department place us at the bottom of the professional ladder. In the eyes of the public a salary comparable with an architect, a doctor or an engineer would do more to establish the ‘teaching profession’ than any other proposition.

If we are interested in the status of teachers (and art teachers) let us take up some of the major issues such as methods of training… conditions of work, facilities for children – and salaries for teachers.”

Ken Scarlett’s call for solidarity among teachers, irrespective of their subject area, highlights a collective need to address systemic issues such as salaries, working conditions, and professional development opportunities. This sentiment, articulated over four decades ago, remains profoundly relevant as educators advocate for equitable treatment and recognition in the face of contemporary challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further underscored the importance of supporting and valuing educators. Teacher strikes in schools and universities throughout 2022 and 2023, and ongoing discussions about working conditions and remuneration highlight the urgency of addressing longstanding issues within the education sector.

Amidst Victoria’s challenges of teacher shortages, out-of-field teaching, and low retention rates, it is crucial to acknowledge that educators have been tirelessly advocating for support and policy reforms across various fronts, achieving some milestones while encountering obstacles in others, over the span of six decades.

The journey towards recognising the value of art education and the status of art teachers is a continuous one. By reflecting on historical debates and engaging in contemporary conversations, we can strive towards a future where all educators are respected, supported, and valued for their invaluable contributions to society.

DET smallest
Monash University