Francis W. Parker, An Early Proponent of Student Choice

In preparation for teaching my graduate class in the History of Teaching Art each year, I make a point of spending time digging into the past of art education to locate some new nuggets of information and interesting historical facts to share with my students in our survey of “Great Moments in Art Education History.”

This year I stumbled onto the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) that turned into a goldmine of useful resources for the study of the history of art education. One resource in particular that caught my attention was the very first issue of Art Education, A Journal Devoted to Manu-Mental Training, dated October 1, 1894.

Within the journal, I found an article titled “Two Hypotheses for the Acquisition of Thought Expression” by Francis W. Parker, a pioneer of the progressive school movement and a firm believer that education should teach students to think for themselves rather than simply cram more and more information into their heads.

Parker hints at the debate that was occurring at the time over the role of formal training vs creative self expression in the nurturing of young minds in the classroom. I imagine his comments will resonate with art teachers who practice choice-based art education today.

Francis W Parker

Francis W Parker

It seems to be a safe principle to follow, that nothing shall be demanded of a child in the way of expression that is not genuine, that is not the reflex or correspondence to his own conscious images; that any attempt to express that which is not genuine interferes with the normal action of the mind, deadens the interest, and worse than this, leads to dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Every child loves to draw. Give him paint, crayon or pencil and he will make crude and imperfect images with the greatest confidence and with perfect delight. This is proven in countless cases. This is the spontaneous beginning of art? But teachers of perfectly accurate drawing claim that this is a hindrance rather than a help, that the spontaneous activities and the loves of the child are to be ignored until he has had a certain definite and accurate training in line drawing.

On the other hand, students of concentration believe that these spontaneous activities are the true beginnings of all knowledge and skill; and that the more the child draws in early life the better, no matter how crude, according to any adequate standard, the external result may be. They assert that under the modern system of teaching drawing by flat copies no artists were ever made; that, indeed the art teachers themselves are not artists, although they have had the best raining that the so-called art school afford. They also assert that all true art feeling must spring from the spontaneous desire on the part of the child to draw, and to practice, and that out of this crudeness and imperfection will steadily grow, under proper criticism, better and better technique, that the only criticism worthy of the name is the criticism from the standpoint of the child’s concepts; that as these concepts become more and more developed the skill will be comfortably enhanced; that there is such a thing as organic growth.

Parker, F.W. (October 1, 1894). Two hypotheses for the acquisition of forms and thought expression. Art Education, a journal Devoted to Manu-Mental Training, 1(1) 6-7.