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Educating for Democracy: Lifelong Learning at a Fiftieth High School Reunion

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Recently I attended my fiftieth high school reunion at what was once Music & Art High School, now La Guardia, both located in Manhattan. It was inspiring and somewhat saddening to see my classmates, many of whom I hadn't laid eyes on since John Kennedy's presidential election. What was saddening was seeing the inevitable aging as I tried to remember the faces that I once knew so well of teenagers who were now getting closer to where, in the words of our school song (sung to the last movement of the Brahms First Symphony) "the immortal light is burning."

Some of the men and women had aged quite gracefully, a few still performing professionally with the verve I remember when we were sixteen years old. Others were not as fortunate, but all shared an energy and vitality that I was glad had not disappeared from their personalities although mellowed by years of experience in many fields other than music or art. Two hundred and twenty-five of us showed up to see and be seen by our classmates. And among the retired, semi-retired and many who were still working full-time, I found a common thread of experience. They had taken the passion that had been kindled at M & A and carried it with them through their journey into a more complex life of career and family. For whatever else they "did for a living," many of them still played, sang or made works of art in "order to live."

After the first evening of acquainting ourselves with one another, often with near-sighted looks at our class pictures displayed on transparent name-tag holders around our necks, we were treated to a concert by some of the notable graduates from our class. There were two wonderful jazz pianists, a flutist whose solo performance took me back to when he was dazzling us fifty years before, a bassoonist who had been the principal chair at the New York Philharmonic, several vocalists, operatic and pop, and readings from among our distinguished writers and poets. This was preceded by a slideshow of works of art, some breathtakingly beautiful, and, most, recent achievements.

We had been "truly educated" at our high school, not only in what we had to know in order to "get on in the world," but wanted to know in order to live in it fully. And although we sorrowed at the list of those who had passed away, many of them dear friends, we rejoiced in who we still were, driven by a passion to excel not merely to compete but to blend our talents in choruses, orchestras, ensembles and art exhibits. Although most of us did not pursue a full-time career in the arts, many of us who became teachers devoted ourselves to giving future generations the enthusiasm, knowledge and skills that we had enjoyed in our own education. The joys of playing piano, singing, or creating an original work of art were still being cherished by the psychotherapist who beautifully accompanied one of the singers, and the owner of a bookstore who could move us still with his guitar playing and original songs.

At each of the three events, however, there was one matter that pointed to what could be an ominous future for the arts, not only in New York City, but nationally, with the pressure of budget cutting on schools throughout the country: petitions were circulated addressed to President Obama, Secretary Arne Duncan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and School Chancellor Joel Klein requesting that arts education be an essential part of our children's education. Unfortunately, the Mayor's track record in terms of the arts is not too encouraging.

According to the most recent report from the Center for Arts Education, which covered the years 2007-008:

Only 7% of elementary schools have arts instruction in the four arts disciplines: Music, Art, Theatre, Dance; 67% of elementary schools and 47% of middle schools offer only one or two arts disciplines. In the high schools although 79% offered instruction in two arts disciplines only 27% offered all four.

On the other hand, according to the same report:

High schools in the top third of graduation rates had almost 40 percent more certified arts teachers per student than schools in the bottom third -- or, on average, one additional arts teacher per school.

High schools in the top third of graduation rates had almost 40 percent more physical spaces dedicated to arts learning per student than schools in the bottom third.

High schools in the top third of graduation rates had 35 percent more graduates completing three or more arts courses than schools in the bottom third.

The lifelong learning benefit we M & A grads had enjoyed, that had filled our days there with experiences that we would treasure and let grow and flourish throughout our lives: These opportunities for a fulfilling and successful education are being short-circuited by the "industrial model" of education that is being promoted and enforced by the Mayor and his Chancellor, Joel Klein.

Several years ago, the noted educator, Sir Ken Robinson, gave a presentation on the need for "revolution" in the public school system in the United States (TED talks, Technology, Entertainment, Design. 1/7/2007). In it he called on educators to abandon the "fast-food model of education" with its emphasis on standardized tests and "linear curricula." He underlined the importance of changing the paradigm of education toward those things that children feel passionate about: a "personalized curriculum." Each of us at M & A had a share of a "personalized" curriculum which took our passion for the arts and focused us toward a lifelong romance with what is beautiful and meaningful for us. This is the direction that the future of our educational system must go in if we are to survive as a nation that is worth far more than our GDP.

The petition is below. If you are so moved, please download, sign and send to the relevant local, state-wide and national officials to help keep the arts a vital part of public education:

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter comes to you from 50-year graduates of the New York City High School of Music & Art (now part of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School) and others whose lives were touched profoundly by the arts. We would like to draw your attention to the particular and lasting benefits that are unique to intensive arts education in a public school setting.

Our youthful grounding in the arts produced not only excellent professional musicians and artists, but also scholars, scientists, cabinet-makers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc... as well as many insightful parents.

Given our formative experience at Music & Art, and those of us educated in arts programs at other schools, we can state affirmatively that our studies taught personal and intellectual discipline, the ability to conceptualize and accomplish distant goals, and respect for others' achievements. Equally important, it fostered in us the ability to recognize and create beauty in many forms.

Studies have shown that these crucial skills are most easily acquired in childhood and adolescence. In view of this, we urgently request that arts education for all children be given priority in budgeting, staffing and curriculum planning on a local and national level.

The societal benefits far outweigh the costs.

Name:

Major:

Address:

Signature: