Discussing Social Issues in Art Education

by Emma E. Castleberry, Art Education

Abstract: This report discusses the role of social issues in contemporary art education by discussing potential challenges art educators face when deciding whether to address social issues in the classroom. Most educators face challenges when deciding to incorporate current social issues into their curricula, and art educators are no exception. Social issues are real-world problems, and exposing students to such issues prepares them to encounter them in everyday life, outside of the classroom. In this paper, whether social issues need to be discussed in schools is not the topic of conversation; instead, this paper addresses whether art curricula in primary, secondary, and postsecondary education should include social issues in a curriculum aimed at teaching and creating art even when the program of study does not explicitly include social issues. This report identifies the potential benefits and detriments of such curricular additions as a part of contemporary art education classrooms—and explores why including social issues in the art classroom is controversial in the first place.

art education, social issues, parent involvement

Contemporary education is defined on its official website as an education style about “connecting school learning to the lives we lead” (What is the contemporary, 2019). But there is a fine line between connecting school to a student’s personal life and imposing on a student’s ability to think for themselves. Different educators have different opinions on whether social issues should be discussed in education at all, but what about in art classes more specifically? Why are teachers, art educators included, apprehensive about teaching controversial? How can teachers empower students to have a voice of their own after their schooling without imposing their own beliefs onto them?     

In Britannica, Kulik (2024) defines social issues as a “state of affairs that negatively affects the personal or social lives of individuals or the well-being of communities. . . to which there is usually public disagreement as to its nature, causes, or solution.” Social issues are real-world problems that different groups of people are affected by every day. Every mature student needs to be knowledgeable on social issues to be not only a successful student, but also a successful citizen in the world when empathizing with others different from themselves. If students went their entire 18 years of life through primary and secondary education without ever discussing real-life social issues, students may never create connections between what is learned in the classroom and the complexities of daily life beyond school (Milbrandt, 2002). Contemporary education stresses connecting the classroom to life beyond education, and without discussing social issues in the classroom, students may struggle to learn about issues beyond what affects them personally. Still, teachers might feel apprehensive about discussing social issues. Milbrandt (2002) offers three reasons for this reluctance: 1) a disinterested neutrality in regards to social, scientific, and academic issues; 2) a fear of career-impacting professional or personal consequences; and 3) above all insufficient information regarding social issues and thus a lack of preparation to discuss them with students. All three of these reasons are valid in modern-day teaching settings, where teachers are meant to show no bias and not allow their students to see their personal, political, or social opinions so students can form their own opinions and draw conclusions of their own. When polarizing and controversial topics come up in the classroom, teachers are bound to have and express their opinions, which could stir up complaints from the parents of their students should the parents have differing opinions on the social issues discussed. While these are valid concerns, Milbrandt (2002) believes the positives of discussing social issues far outweigh the negatives, in the art classroom specifically: “through an aesthetic discussion, questions and controversies are raised that elevate the concerns of art from production to a thoughtful and influential connection to life itself” (p. 144). For Milbrandt (2002), using social issues to facilitate discussion and thus art production can lead to richer art and an overall deeper meaning within pieces.

Beyond encouraging students to produce more informed and more emotional artwork, discussing social issues can empower students to take action in their own lives regarding the issue. Social justice, which extends from social issues more generally, refers to when people seek justice related to social issues that include the elimination of unfairness due to race, sex, gender, political status, and wealth, within educational institutions. Quinn (2006) discusses how social justice plays a role in art education: “a justice-focused art curriculum also seems aligned with at least some articulations of postmodern approaches to art and art education, for instance, by focusing on the connections between power and knowledge” (p. 16). That is, art curricula that focus on social justice and highlight social issues for the student also directly relate to power and knowledge. When students know more about social issues and can take a stronger stance on them if so desired, the knowledge they gain empowers them in and out of the classroom—and contemporary education centers on relating in-school teachings to the real world beyond the education system.

The role parents play in their students’ schooling is an important consideration in the context of introducing social issues into an art curriculum. When does parent involvement become too much involvement? When should teachers be allowed to perform their jobs as trained educators without parental oversight? According to Davies (1987), “the education of children should be viewed as a partnership between the school and the home” (p. 148). Davies (1987) further discusses the numerous benefits of having parents involved in education and stresses that the support of parents in a school system—regardless the school’s socioeconomic conditions—can greatly increase the success of the classroom. Indeed, Davies (1987) takes a fairly controversial stance by which he claims that federal, state, or local mandates to require parents to be involved in the school system are necessary to facilitate change within the system. However, such mandates are problematic because if parents are too involved in the school system, their involvement can interfere with the teachers’ ability to discuss topics in the classroom and give their students a solid education. If parents are too rigid with their beliefs and are involved, their students learning both sides of any social issue can be viewed as converting their children. When this happens, concerns may be brought to the school board because of the level of involvement parents have. At some point, parents should trust the school system with the education their children are receiving, or move somewhere else where the education system would be a better fit for their children. While some parent-facilitated change is necessary and beneficial within a school system, too much parent involvement can be problematic and bad for students’ educations.

Mamolo (2018) conducted an experiment with secondary math students on the topic of social issues. He set up several social issues the students could pick from, including retirement issues, fair trade, and nutrition. The students who picked retirement issues picked the topic “because of personal interest and familiarity,” and the students who picked fair trade and nutrition cited an “opportunity to learn more about an unfamiliar social issue [was] the primary factor in their choice” (Mamolo, 2018, p. 34). This study presents an example of how young students can choose to discuss social issues in a classroom that is not social studies, where such conversations might be more typical. This study also shows that students can make mature decisions to discuss social issues that pertain to themselves, or even reach beyond what they know to discuss topics they are unfamiliar with.

Pariser (2021) discusses the role of social issues in the art classroom, highlighting benefits such as inspiring deep emotional works and more compelling compositions. At the same time, Pariser (2021) writes, “the study of social justice issues is better done in a social studies or history class rather than an art class,” a statement that suggests he does not believe social issues have a place within the art classroom (p. 208). Art classes should be primarily about creating art and learning art methodologies; discussing controversial issues tends to take the focus of the class away from studies of the arts. According to Pariser (2021), it is not the art teacher’s role to discuss these issues with their students; rather, “art teachers should offer their students the skills and knowledge to help them function as consumers, practitioners and lovers of the arts, not as political activists” (p. 208).  While social issues do have a position in education to make well-informed students who can look outside their life problems and see what affects others around them or others across the globe, Pariser (2021) argues that this topic should be reserved for older students who have the mental capabilities to process such topics and engage thoroughly in an intellectual discussion regarding them.

I chose the discussion of social issues within the art classroom to be the topic of this exploration because as a future art educator in the 21st century I acknowledge that social issues are a part of everyday life. I wanted to research different educators’ experiences with discussing social issues and their opinions on whether it should be done—and not just art educators, but others, too. Social issues influence every person on this planet regularly, if not daily, so I wanted to know how to think about and broach them in the art classroom.

My investigation has led to the following conclusions. First, social issues should be a topic of discussion within the classroom because doing so enriches not only students’ knowledge about themselves but also the artwork they create. At the same time, I acknowledge that social issues should be discussed in K-12 classrooms after informing students and parents. In college courses, for instance, students can often glean whether social issues will be addressed in the course based on the course description and/or syllabus are very clearly titled in a way that informs the student that the topic of discussion within the class is primarily focused on social issues or problems. In primary and secondary education—elementary, middle, and high school— social issues should only be discussed in a social studies class, where “social” studies is the main topic in the class.

For lower levels of schooling, art education should focus on growing a student’s technique and study, and it should only be in higher education such as college where classes are clearly noted to have social issues as a topic of discussion, and educators can bridge the gap between social issues and art, and then discuss the impact social issues has on art and vice versa. An additional benefit of this is that college students will be more mature and able to handle the discussion of social issues more respectfully, which educators may find not the case in middle or high school classrooms. Another benefit of saving social issue discussion for college is that it would eliminate the parent’s ability to control the discussion of topics in school because the college student would be a legal adult and thus able to make their own choices; also, it would most likely be possible for the college student to chose not to take that class if the topic of discussion made them uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable by topics of discussion is how people grow to understand the world outside of their lives, but some people possess intense triggers of mental illness when discussing issues such as these so the option to opt-out, which is more possible in college education than in middle or high school, would be beneficial. Overall, the topic of social issues is something that needs to be discussed in modern and contemporary education but should be reserved for older students with more maturity.


Davies, D (1987). Parent involvement in public schools: Opportunities for administrators. Education and Urban Society, 19(2), 147–163.

Kulik, R. M. (2024, March 27). Social issue. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-issue

Mamolo, A. (2018). Perceptions of social issues as contexts for secondary mathematics. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 51, 28–40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmathb.2018.06.007

Milbrandt, M. (2002). Addressing contemporary social issues in art education: A survey of public school art educators in Georgia. A Journal of Issues and Research, 43(2), 141–157. https://doi.org/10.2307/1321001

Pariser, D. (2021). Downplay social justice issues in art education. Visual Inquiry: Learning & Teaching Art, 10(2), 205–209. https://doi.org/10.1386/ vi_00044_1

Quinn, T. (2006). Out of cite, out of mind: Social justice and art education. The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, 26, 282–301.

Education for Contemporary Times. (2019). What is the contemporary education framework? Contemporary Education. http://www.contemporaryeducation.com/2019/07/what-is-contemporary-education-framework.html

Citation Style: APA