Someone--perhaps the late Ernest Boyer--described public education as a kind of stage where all the failings and strengths of a democratic society played out: Poverty. Racism. Equality and inequality. Moral courage and moral collapse. Hope, of course.
Whatever problems we're wrestling with in building (or destroying, take your pick) our great nation, they show up in our schools first. Schools are bellwethers for national trends and paradigm shifts--economic, cultural and political. Every issue we have faced in this nation--from segregation to food security--has resulted in changes in school policies and practices.
I thought of this when I read Nancy E. Bailey's fine piece called The Theft of the Tradition of Music in OUR Public Schools. Bailey asks:
How do politicians eliminate a school orchestra in this country and still sleep at night? How does a community adjust to such a theft when they tried so hard to keep the music playing? Why shut down a school and a music program that works? Why would city leaders demolish joy in a neighborhood?
How does a country as great as America deny its children music? How will those children face the future without playing music? What kind of music will they pass down to their children?
It is not that we are a poor country and cannot afford it. That's a bogus excuse when it comes to schools. Politicians in this country find money for what they want.
I like the way Bailey approaches this: destroying music programs isn't trimming away the fat--it's theft. Robbing children of things they love to do, essential things that enrich their lives in a dozen ways. Bailey writes about her father, who played the violin in school, even as the Great Depression ravaged the nation.
My own father dropped out of high school at 16, during the Depression, to go to work. He played percussion in the school band, which met last hour of the school day. Even though he hadn't been attending his other classes for weeks, he kept slipping into the band room and playing, one hour a day, undetected by school officials. When they finally caught up with him, they made his band director give him the news: you can't play in the band unless you're actually a student here.
My dad shared this story when I started studying music. Music is what makes school worthwhile, he told me. Fortunately, I found a lot of other things to like in school, as well--literature and history, art and drama, all of which were offered in my blue-collar public school district. Students who stayed in school so they could be competitive athletes used to be an accepted phenomenon, a few decades back--reason to keep popular sports funded, often via parent boosters groups. What keeps kids in school these days?
Instead of providing the programs that students find most compelling, we're on a path to strip public education clean of richness, culture and (yes, I'm going to say it) fun.
This morning, I sat under a huge old maple tree in the local cemetery. The community band played. The Village Voices sang. There were speeches, a flag-raising ceremony, a trumpeter playing "Taps"--and a young bagpiper keening "Amazing Grace." We sang the national anthem, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, together. Over 125 people were part of the program, as speakers and musicians, in a village of some 500 people.
Virtually all of them, I'm sure, learned the essential skills of making music, public speaking and patriotic customs in a public school someplace. They still use these capacities to make their lives more enjoyable and meaningful, to take a day away from work, to think about honoring those who died to preserve democracy. To count our blessings. To celebrate, in community.
Thanks to all the public school music teachers who led bands and choirs and parades this weekend, teaching their students the meaning of respect and service. You are appreciated.
And thanks to my dad who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, in the Pacific theater.