Neil spent four entire school days rehearsing and performing in his school’s Fifth Grade Musical. This was on top of several days he spent a few months earlier preparing for the Fourth Grade Musical, as well as several weeks of music classes putting together the multicultural dance performance “Kids in Motion,” not to mention the writing and performing of skits for the Earth Day celebration. I asked Neil what the educational purpose was in setting aside 4 entire educational days to devote to rehearsing the Fifth Grade Musical, in which, he, by the way, was performing only as a member of the large chorus, and as part of a waltzers’ ensemble. Since it featured some students hamming it up as composers explaining themselves to current-day students, Neil told me they were learning about classical music.
Hmm. Give me four curriculum-free days with my son with the caveat to teach him about classical music composers, and I know what I’d do: I’d play snippets of great symphonies and operas and tell him the stories of the mad lives of Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler, Tschaikovksy and more, and explain how they tried to express their inner dramas with music. As it was, the actual classical music in the musical was minimal; and just to make sure we wouldn’t get all dragged into boredom with all that old stuff, it included a multi-composer rap with lyrics like: “Eins, zwei, three and four/Sauerkraut, Branntwein, Schnitzel and more/Achtung mein Herr, I’m the German on the block/Ach du lieber, my name is Bach”, and “Yes, I’m Mahler from Bohemia/I conducted opera in Vien-n-i-ya/All my orchestras were really large/Hardly fit them on a stage, barely fit them on a barge.”
It also didn’t help that this four-day exemption from regular school work came shortly after the school’s Open House, where I got to see the major school work Neil had done this year. His history projects included a pop-up book on his mission, which he’d done himself, and “The ABC’s of California” which he’d done with 3 other students. Neil had gotten the last letters of the alphabet and the book included such fascinating history facts such as “W is for Wagon, which settlers used to come into California.” All of his fourth-grade projects included lots and lots of drawing and coloring, even though Neil hadn’t received the training on shading and perspective he needed to make good illustrations. The fourth grade work also included grammatical and spelling mistakes his teacher didn’t bother to correct, and she paid so little attention to his handwriting, a skill he still struggles with, that his later work was nearly illegible.
The problem is that our schools are turning into performing arts schools, and this may explain why our society has a glut of actors, singers, fiction writers, and dancers, and not enough people who can write a coherent essay, name all 50 states and their capitals, balance their checkbooks, debate global warming, or understand the different responsibilities of the state and the federal government.
To a certain extent, I can understand why the schools are using the fine arts as an educational tool. Many children feel, as one of Neil’s peers said, “I won’t do anything unless it has the word fun in it!” And unfortunately, instead of teaching the lesson that an awful lot of stuff in life isn’t fun but you gotta do it anyway, the schools have decided to make learning more palatable. You can, after all, learn and appreciate the poetry of the English language by listening to and performing Shakespeare. You do expand your cultural boundaries by playing Chinese jump-rope and learning a few flamenco steps. It’s a lot more fun to draw pictures than it is to have to read a textbook and memorize names, places and dates. As you write a fiction story, you get to practice grammar and syntax, and use your imagination as well. Oh, and who cares if you get your science and science fiction mixed up in the silly little skit you wrote about dinosaurs: you learned science is fun, and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?
And it’s a wonderful feeling for a student to bask in the evident accomplishment fine arts allow, but as a result the finest students often end up pursuing careers in the fine arts, competing with the millions of others who also discovered their fine arts talents in school. The girl who mesmerized her classmates for two weeks as Juliet expects casting agents to be pursuing her, only to discover every high school in the nation has produced several talented, aspiring actresses. The boy who won a county award for his spectacular wildlife painting heads off to art school and the expectation that he’s going to become America’s Rembrandt, and quickly finds it’ll take years of work and more than a little luck to find a gallery owner who’ll bother to show (and only possibly sell) one of his paintings for a short period of time. I love all the fine arts: music, painting, sculpture, fiction, theatre, and dance, but even I have to admit we have so much that only a very little will ever get through. And those who pursue a living in the fine arts generally have a miserable time of it. Hey, even I’m guilty of the dream. I will daresay I was the best fiction writer in my school, but the response I received from fiction magazine publishers ranged from form letters to outright rudeness. Luckily, I could turn those skills to non fiction, which pays, but doesn’t get appreciated or awarded within school.
On one of Neil’s Fifth Grade Musical full day rehearsals, I happened to arrive at the school early. I peeked into the cafeteria, where the rehearsal was going on, and saw all the students idling. One of the teachers was giving awards to some of the performers. What for? For things such hamming it up the best, or looking the most alert while being in the background. When, if ever, will such skills be invaluable in the real world (ok, maybe looking alert in a boring office wide meeting can be useful), but I would have been much happier if awards were being given for actual learning. How about an award for the kid who can name three of Mozart’s compositions, or who can tell us who’s older: Igor Stravinsky or Philip Glass?
Our schools are producing too many fine artists, when what we really need is more nerds.