An Arts Education Symposium

RICHARD KESSLER: Maxine, one of the places that Frank was very interested in moving us towards (and this was not at my urging… not that I have any problem with it…) was about art and democracy, art and citizenship, the relationship between the two, and I think that that’s something a lot of people don’t think of often. Again it’s about the isolation of art, of an artist, an artistic experience, going to a movie, listening to music. But what it means in a larger sense, in terms of being afraid, the human experience, being part of the larger community.

MAXINE GREENE: Yeah. Dewey says that democracy is a community in the making. And always like that, because it means you never really achieve it, but it’s in the making through community… That’s why he uses Whitman as the poet of democracy. And if we could say that schools should be communities in the making, you know, or, like he talks about an articulate public, giving a public its voice… I think they’re all very similar. It’s such a funny place to say it. Art reaches a deeper level of awareness and that ordinary conversation is so trivial and so superficial, but if it touches the level of the arts, desire and purpose come to the surface, you know. And I think it, you know, you get fewer sound bytes, if you can somehow be in touch. And a lot of people are talking, oddly enough, about Eros now, in connection with schools. Desire, passion, they’re trying to spoon it back, you know.

POLLY KAHN: Dangerous as it is.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said something in one of your books that I found so intriguing, as sort of a jumping-off point. If you’re just a passive receptacle of information, if you’re just watching the TV, receiving the news, hearing the opinions on the news, or I’ll stretch this, I’ll take it further, I’ll take it into the concert hall, if you’re just going to the concert and hearing the music that people are telling you is the great music, if you’re not making it, if you’re not engaged in that community, how can you be a participating member of a democracy where you’re forced to make choices, where you’re forced to choose the person who should be President. You’re not saying, “Tell me who the President should be.” You’re the one who has to go in there and pull the lever.

MAXINE GREENE: I think that’s a great loss, now. People don’t, don’t engage with it, they just take it in. I mean, imagine taking in, even having that goddamn fool Trump on television and people listening to that. It’s just, it’s appalling. Or any of them. They’re all… and, you know, I’m almost… Have you ever met Clinton?

HOLLIS HEADRICK: No. Mrs. Clinton I’ve met.

MAXINE GREENE: They say he has this amazing charisma that grabs you. I would be terrified of that.

HOLLIS HEADRICK: When it’s put to good use, it’s wonderful. But, I think this society, because it’s gotten so large, and because people seek community, and when they can’t seek community then they let others dictate to them what their ideas are and what the issues are, and I think that’s what the media does, and it’s very powerful. And it tells us what is O.K. to listen to, what’s O.K. to wear, what’s O.K. to look at, where to live, what kind of car to drive. All of these things come at you. And that’s where the participative part comes… Even though there are more choices than ever, it still becomes more difficult sometimes to exercise those choices

MAXINE GREENE: We don’t do enough in the schools about that. We don’t do enough to make people realize that television is made by human beings; they think it’s a window on the world.

FRANK J. OTERI: The polls tell us what to believe. The polls tell us this is what we’re believing, therefore, this is what we should believe.

RICHARD KESSLER: That’s right. I hate that when I hear that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Before an election, we already know who the next President’s going to be, according to the polls, so what’s the point of voting?

MAXINE GREENE: Did you see American Beauty?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes.

MAXINE GREENE: I got my class very upset about it, because I saw it twice and I hated it twice. But I think aesthetically it’s a remarkable movie. You know, it’s wonderfully done. But if the world is that world, I’d like to cut my throat right now. You know, what did they used to say, onanistic? Totally, totally self-involved. Totally, you know, drugs and masturbation. No poor people.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

MAXINE GREENE: Just incredible.

FRANK J. OTERI: And no real care beyond self, of any the characters.

MAXINE GREENE: No, no awareness.

FRANK J. OTERI: Everyone’s completely self-motivated.

MAXINE GREENE: I meant I hated it if that’s the world.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

MAXINE GREENE: And I worry it is.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, to take the conversation back to education with this idea of democracy, I think, this more than anything, is the argument for the arts in education. It’s the argument for teaching creativity. For years we’ve had a utilitarian-based education, a job-based education. What am I learning and how is this going to get me a job? As opposed to an experiential education: how is this going to be an exciting thing that reveals how wonderful the world is. Well, without seeing the world as a wonderful place, with only thinking of education as being how you’re going to advance self, there’s no way to have a community. There’s no way, and without learning creativity, without learning about being creative, there’s no way to learn critical thinking and to be part of a democracy.

MAXINE GREENE: The sad part is it’s only the liberal middle class that has time for that. The poor immigrant, the, he wants his kid to…

FRANK J. OTERI: …have a job.

MAXINE GREENE: That’s the hard thing.

FRANK J. OTERI: So there’s got to be a balance between the two.

POLLY KAHN: I’m not sure I entirely agree with you. I think, it’s dangerous to load up the arts with responsibilities that it may or may not be able to carry. You know, and it can lead us down the path just as we’ve all been in the vulnerable position of, you know, this poetry program is only worthwhile if the math scores go up.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

POLLY KAHN: There’s a danger if we take a global attitude that the purpose of the arts is to teach us to be citizens. I think it can contribute to an environment of thinking individuals, you know, and to that degree, yes. But as a goal, I’m not sure… We’ve been saddled with everything, but that’s a big one. The other thing is, you know, one of the things that we have seen is what happens for children in their educational experience when the arts aren’t present. That’s a time that this pendulum shift that we’re now in is taking us out of, at least in New York. People might argue that arts education in the ’50’s or ’60’s wasn’t great, but it was there. We went through this 20-year period where nothing was there, and we saw the school system just implode. And we also saw, school by school, that the schools that had held on to the arts seemed to be doing better by many measures. And therefore, it’s part of what contributed to this appetite that we’re now seeing filled again, that they seemed to produce better communities of learners. But, you know, to create citizens, to have the role of the arts be to create citizens, you know, good citizens, I don’t know… To support your point of view, I’m thinking of a particular school that we work with. Virtually all of kids arrived within the last year. And… From Mexico or Santo Domingo. And it’s an incredibly lovely group of kids. And I was taking a funder to visit the school and meet with the principal, and the funder said: “What is the goal of you with these children?” And she said, “I need to help them become Americans.” And so, this person said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, these are incredibly lovely kids who are totally used to deferring to the adult. The notion of their right to their own point of view doesn’t exist.” She said, “This school is orderly and the kids are wonderful, but my job is to help them raise a little Cain!” And the arts programs help do that. They help give kids their voice. So, you know, in that sense, I would say that it does help to do that.

MAXINE GREENE: I think you have to be careful not to idealize the arts. Not all the arts are redemptive. We have to keep talking about the process, you know, of how you do get kids to engage, you know, how you share your own engagement, and how you allow people to say that they don’t like something, like Harry Potter or Carter. I don’t like his music. It’s possible.

FRANK J. OTERI: We need to be able to teach critical thinking skills and that it’s O.K. to have different opinions. There are no absolutes.

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