We complain about test scores and lament the growing epidemic of school violence, as America’s students zone out and doodle in the margins of their lined paper. I believe that what we have left behind is exactly what our children are in desperate need of—art.
A few years ago, I found myself sorting through state test materials at a local middle school. I’d been relegated to a large storeroom to stuff boxes with the correct number of test booklets, scantron sheets and number-two pencils. As one my fellow sorters mused aloud about the room’s history and use, I glanced around at the exceedingly high ceilings. Several small rooms flanked the back wall, each with a window. Every inch of wall space was covered with the divots of gray egg-crate foam…
The irony was astounding. I was rummaging through thousands of standardized tests, (which in a few months time would publicly proclaim the worth of every teacher and student), in the middle of the school’s old band room. Now it had become a glorified storage space to house hordes of plastic baskets brimming with idle chapter books, broken desks and chairs, boxes of Xerox paper, cleaning supplies—and of course, for the next three weeks, thousands of multiple choice exams.
The ghosted moans of off-key saxophones and clarinets, the random beats of bass drums and the intermittent clicking of the conductor’s wand on a metal stand, had echoed their last sounds years ago. And somewhere, I imagined, the old band teacher was poised with a booklet in his hand waiting to administer a series of monotone standardized directions to a class of 40.
With the shrinking pool of creative outlets, students are forced to turn to the prefab creations of mainstream entertainment. Their musical instruments and sheet music have been replaced with Ipods that rarely leave the isolation of their eardrums. Dance teachers replaced by music videos. Sketch pads and colored pencils replaced by clipart. The scripts of David Mamet replaced by sitcoms, whose lines are regurgitated to the point of obliterated catch phrases. When deprived of creative expression, children will find other ways and means.
As a teacher I know we have a lot of work to do. I know it’s getting harder and harder just to teach kids to read and to add. However, I believe that drama can teach a student to read, that music will only aid in math skills, that dance is better than Ritalin at controlling inattentive and fidgety students.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is the queen of all sciences, communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.” What then are we communicating to these new generations spanning the grades of our public schools? That the square root of 49 is 7, “quickly” is an adverb, every story must have a conflict and that DiCaprio is the only Leonardo they need remember?
We’ve turned our band rooms into storage; our theaters into cafeterias, our art rooms into overflow spaces for too crowded classrooms. But I believe in a renaissance. A renaissance that will come through finger-painted pictures, the flat off key whine of violins and the clumsy barrel jumps of young dancers. I believe in art.
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