Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Dumbing of America Redux

Today's blog is a continuation, of sorts, on what I touched on the other day. The focus is on education.

I came across a passage in a book I was reading, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970, by Boris Schwarz. This passage concerns the visit to Russia of a noted American classical composer, Roy Harris. Most of you probably have not heard of Roy Harris. He was born in 1898 in a log cabin on the prairie, but became a major force in formal classical music in America. Among his many compositions over 90 odd years of life were fourteen symphonies, including the concert favorite Third, the Folk and the Gettysburg, as well as the concert overture to the Civil War balad, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." At one time he was considered as important as Aaron Copland to American music. In 1960 he was among the group of American composers invited to Soviet Russia to see how things were there. Schwarz records his impressions.

"Roy Harris was visibly impressed by the organization of the arts in the Soviet Union . . . . (Harris said) 'Ballet, opera, drama are not only well supported by the state, but enthusiastically received by large masses of the population. In Tashkent, in Central Asia, we found a city of 400,000 people with six or seven theatres, one of which gives 200 performances of ballet and opera each year to a consistantly filled hall.' (Schwarz added) Such a situation made Harris think of the uncomfortable conditions of the arts in the United States where orchestras and opera houses go begging for private contributions year after year."

These comments were made half a century ago. I do not know if the arts are still that strong in the new Russia, but I suspect that they are: it wasn't the Soviet State that promoted the passion for performing arts, it was the passion that prompted the State to continue to sponsor the arts. Lively discussion about how to approach state support of the arts topped agendas for Lenin and his government within weeks of taking power in 1917. But the state of the arts in Russia is not my concern -- my interest is academic. It is the state of the arts in America that has been worrying me for, quite literally, decades.

Americans don't seem to care about opera or symphonies or chamber music or poetry or drama, or NPR, for that matter. These exist because a certain percentage of the population cares enough to keep them going despite all odds. It has been, as Harris observed, an ongoing battle here. I accept that these venues are not for everyone, but they face extinction. Add to that the growing dismissal of art and music in the education of our young people, and America faces yet another divide from the rest of the so-called civilized world, this one in artistic expression. As long as we continue to teach our children how to pass tests and answer questions instead of how to test oneself and ask questions, the divide will grow and the dumbing of America will reach its ultimate goal before my grandson reaches high school.

The same concern can be expressed toward other areas of education: we rank in the middle of the pack when it comes to mathematics and science. Our understanding of ancient history is dwindling to nothing and our understanding of world history comes all too often from films like "Inglorious Basterds." Even our spelling is suspect.

Don't get me wrong: there are great American artists, writers, poets, film makers doing incredible things. There are great doctors and scientists on the cutting edge. But the dominance we once had is gone. We seem to be emphasizing education geared solely to apprenticeship. This may be practical up to a point, because each of our young needs to be able to survive in the adult world. But it leaves the soul wanting and the quality of life equally deminished. It turns us backwards, back to a feudal society wherein the peasant/serf existed only for the Lord's bidding, and knew nothing and cared less about the rest of the world.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. Our founding fathers meant for us to have a better life, and we are giving it up. We know better -- and that is our biggest sin.

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