The Arts

Making Room for the Soul

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

The National Association of Music Education makes unequivocally clear its position as to the importance and influence of music on students – regardless of age, “The study of music includes the study of the people, places, and cultures involved in its creation and performance. As our country becomes increasingly diverse, it is important for students in every school setting to study a wide variety of musical styles, cultures, and genres.”

A companion statement on Access and Equity in Music Education addresses equitable access to music education for all students, so that students, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, economic status, religious background, sexual orientation and identity, socioeconomic status, academic standing, exceptionalities, or musical abilities, can participate in the making of music within their schools. 

The performing and visual arts have always been considered the soul of a school’s curriculum. Unfortunately, ancestral content areas, by way of Europe, defined what was to be prioritized – chronologically alphabetized as to the subjects to be taught. English (Reading and Writing), History, Mathematics and Science were considered to be the untouchable core subjects. Little mention and attention was paid to the Visual and Performing Arts.

The legacy of public school education does not have a distant legacy. It was only in 1918 that public education became required and segregated with women, immigrants and people of color remaining outside the sphere of social justice and equity.

In 1896 the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) upheld the legality of segregation. It was not until 1954, that Supreme Court overturned its ruling with the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, and public schools became open to people of all races. Wow, 1954 – not that long ago – some of us are still around!

Throughout the years, public, private and home schooling went through a myriad of curricular mapping and changes. But one thing that has not changed is the focus on specific content areas deemed sacred and required. English, History/Social Studies, Science and Math lead the way followed by Physical Education (Gym/Athletics), Foreign Languages and the Visual/Performing Arts. How do we know this? The answer lies on the amount of funding that school districts spend on what they deem is important. Some departments are deemed sacrosanct versus other disciplines dropped from the curriculum, offered on a limited basis – or worse – pay to paint.

So why should the Arts matter?  “The arts matter because they help us see the world from different perspectives. They give us empathy and help us understand people, places, periods of history, and issues with which we may otherwise be unfamiliar. They comfort us in grief and energize us in celebration. They are important because they can act as a catalyst for change… they can start a revolution! The arts ignite something in our brains that I can’t explain, but I know it’s essential for life.” – Jennie Terman

Not a winning argument for ‘survival of the fittest’ or Ayn Rand fans. Some would argue that Terman’s quote does not mention content areas nor professions. Students need to know specific college prep classes. They need to know how to write, read, do math, learn science and know history… NO, NO! DON’T STOP! KEEP GOING! and… music, dance, painting, drama, band, orchestra, choir, drawing, sculpting, photography, ceramics… NO, DON’T STOP! Please… it’s the soul of the school!

True, the colleges don’t ask for an art portfolio, or a performance of one of Hamlet’s soliloquies. As a matter of fact, colleges seem to be asking less of its candidates. Just drop the info and transcript on line, swipe the credit card and don’t call us, we’ll call you.

So what is this all about Alfie? Is there any worth beyond practicality and the work we end up doing 9-5 for most of our lives?

Dolly doesn’t paint a pretty picture, “Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin.’ Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin.’ They just use your mind and they never give you credit, It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it. They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter. You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder. But you got dreams he’ll never take away.”

No, there has to be more! Dreams, passion, creativity, imagination… there has to be room in the curriculum for the soul?

“Sorry, we have to prioritize. Sorry, they had to be cut – no funding.”

Guess that those dreams and passions – that soul will have to take a back seat… maybe go through life wondering if only… but what about those soulful dreams?

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frameless heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget
Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in the ragged clothes
The silver thorn, a bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow
Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me 
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

Vincent – Lyrics by Don McLean
Produced by Ed Freeman
Album – American Pie, 1971