The Imagination Gap

Rebecca Berlin Field
4 min readOct 15, 2022

One of the first discussions I have with my art students each year is about the meaning of the word “art”. I ask them to come up with their own definitions and I am always astounded by their responses. One student in particular this year blew me away: “Art is what it means to be human.” Its simple, beautiful and complete.

As a veteran high school art teacher, I have a unique understanding of my students’ access to art learning. I taught art in predominantly white, suburban, mixed income schools for 17 years and then moved to an almost all-Black, funding-starved public school serving families whose income level is below the federal poverty level. When I began my new job several years ago, the disparity was overwhelming to me. My white and high income students had access to a menu of arts courses: 5 levels of studio art, ceramics, AP Art History, digital design, architecture, photography, Band, Orchestra, Chorus, Show Choir, and Theater. At my new school, my students can only take basic studio art, band, and dance. In my studio art classes now, the overall skill level is extremely low and students have a very difficult time thinking creatively. Clearly they have not had much time with art-making in elementary and middle school. They struggle with taking risks and trying new things because they have rarely been asked to do brave or authentic assignments. Teachers are forced to teach a standardized curriculum…they must give their students the best chance at passing the state tests. My art students have to un-learn that art is not just another completion grade. In my class, they get a grade for working on unique solutions and pushing themselves beyond expectations. This takes new skills, metacognition, and self-confidence. Building confidence takes time that my students are not given. Core teachers are permitted to take kids from my class for tutoring and remediation and these students miss massive amounts of class time so that they can pass state testing. Low income Black children in public schools have a deficit that will negatively affect their futures and it is limiting their potential to be truly free. My students have an imagination gap.

Black children in public school are not given space to dream about their future. They are not introduced to tools that will help them fully express themselves. They are prevented from speaking their truth and telling their stories. They are kept from developing their talents, those that bring self-actualization and joy. This is withheld purposefully.

Public schools that withhold access and underfund the arts are gatekeeping. White leaders are threatened by Black creatives. Scores on white-centered high-stakes testing keep school leaders in power and creative thought threatens them. Its always been this way. Public schools breed complicity, not abolition. To be free, people must imagine a more just future. Access to imagination is often withheld when school systems see students as graduation rates and test scores rather than people worthy of all that they deserve. When test scores drop, the arts are cut, even though our music and art and dance classes are often the only experiences that give students hope and joy at school.

It is common knowledge that students practice math and literacy in arts classes, but they also learn empathy and problem-solving. Socio-emotional learning happens in arts classes. Children learn to acknowledge and respect other points of view. They learn kindness and community. They are exposed to other cultures and alternate experiences that are different than their own. They learn bravery and how to trust themselves. They learn social justice and advocacy. They learn how to imagine being free.

Black people are underrepresented in the art world. There are few Black playwrights and actors, film directors, authors, orchestra members, Ballet dancers, there are less Black curators and art historians, museum professionals, photographers, advertising and design professionals. There are less Black poets, sculptors, animators, illustrators. Because of this, the stories that need to be told are being erased and excluded. When school leaders cancel the imagination of Black and Brown kids, it is because they will not envision a future in which our children become creators and thinkers rather than just ”no longer our responsibility.” They do not see Black children as fully human, a belief instilled in the US even before our country’s founding.

When they are young, children are naturally creative humans. Those that grow to be artists, use that creativity to become change-makers. They transform and reimagine a world for us that is kinder, more just, and filled with optimism. Access to art is a human right.

Making art is frightening to those in power because art is accessible to everyone regardless of their income, race, or gender. Art educators don’t prepare kids to become obedient workers, but rather to dream up new ideas and new possibilities for themselves and for the world. But dreaming isn’t a skill that maintains inequitable systems. Until public education begins to treat Black children as fully human, access to arts will never be universal.