Robin Lithgow, retired director of arts education in the Los Angeles, blogs about the history of arts education. In this post, she reflects on the questions she wished she had asked her parents when they were alive, and her reflections lead her to learning and telling the history of arts education in settlement houses, the social service centers in densely crowded urban neighborhoods. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the billionaires who now pour vast amounts of money into creating competitive structures of schooling were instead to fund vibrant arts education programs?

She writes:

The Settlement Movement began in the late 19th century as a social experiment, to address the cultural needs of impoverished communities. It was modeled after Toynbee Hall, established in London in 1884 “as a practical tool for remedying the cruelty, exploitation, and  bleakness found in city life.” The first settlement house in the United States was University Settlement in New York City, but the most famous was Hull House, established by Jane Addams in Chicago. Eventually there were over 400 settlement houses in cities and towns across the country.

Here’s an interesting fact: the reason they were called “settlement houses” is because a variety of caring groups “settled in” to neighborhoods with wretched living conditions, to learn as well as to help. They lived in the communities and shared the stresses endemic to neighborhoods of poverty. They did not approach their jobs as teachers, but as students: students of the huge diversity of cultures pouring into our nation at the time.

Music lesson at a Philadelphia settlement house

Social dance class at The Memory Project in a Cleveland settlement house

My best source so far, in searching for the answers to questions I never got to ask my  mother, is a monograph written in 2011 by Nick Rabkin: “Teaching Artists and the Future of Education.” In it he makes the assertion that, “Artists have worked in community-based arts education for more than a century, and the roots of their work in schools are found in arts programs at the settlement houses at the turn of the last century.” To quote Margaret Berry, “In the settlement house there were always activities which brought fun and fulfillment to life—music, art, theater, sociability and play.” But Rabkin points out that the settlement houses cast out the old conservatory model of arts training in favor of a much more socially conscious, all inclusive model, in which art making and art exploration was “for everyone and essential to the fabric of a democratic society.” The iconic example is that instead of art students standing in smocks at easels, painting vases, a drawing lesson at Hull House might be a class of scruffy youngsters sketching the unsanitary conditions in the alley behind the settlement. Teachers at the settlement houses taught aesthetics and technical skills but were also “attentive to the arts as tools for critical exploration of the world, celebration of community values and traditions, weaving the arts into daily life, cultivation of imagination and creativity, and appreciation of the world’s many cultures.” We see in this philosophy the derivation of the strands of our national instructional standards in the arts.

Hull House is where the great swing era clarinetist, Benny Goodman, learned music, and the Home for Colored Waifs in New Orleans gave us Louis Armstrong. Social dance, modern dance, and creative movement were regular offerings, as were culturally embedded crafts.