Years ago, I might have said ‘once upon a time’ it seems so foreign now, a real estate office I worked in kept its supply of current newspapers stacked in the copy room. Mailboxes lined one wall and a fax machine graced the facing counter. The huge Xerox behemoth that ran our lives took up most of the rest of the floor space, claiming dominant share of the square footage by means of its import. Duplicating materials for coop board packages was certainly a vital task for us brokers, but so were sending and receiving documents by fax, and checking personal mailboxes for client communications about pending deals; to say nothing of the always welcome and eagerly awaited commission check from the bookkeeping department! With so many critical tasks converging in one central place, it’s no wonder there was always conversation and gossip to be found in the copy room.
I’m sure you can place the era, now that you know we lived for snail mail, reacted in a leisurely fashion to faxes, had never heard of a scanner with the dimensions of a dress box instead of a room-sized copy machine, and had to resort to hard copy news to stay up to date. I told you, it was ‘once upon a time’. On one of those long-ago days, I was wiling away ‘the time’ waiting for a 500 page board package to duplicate exponentially. In between the usual battle to wrest a piece of mangled paper from the jaws of the Xerox machine, and replacement of the cracked collator tray always ending up on the floor at a crucial moment in the cacophonous process, I scanned the arts section of The New York Times. I could usually get deeply engrossed in Anna Kisselgoff’s critique of a dance performance or Clive Barnes ‘shooting the wounded’ (as he liked to say) in a current theater production. I have no doubt the papers were there for just such entertainment, since we had so little private time to read for pure enjoyment.
“What’s the problem?” one of my male counterparts asked. I hadn’t heard him come in and wanted his interruption like a Landlease coming due.
“Huh?” I muttered, barely glancing up before going back to my reading; unfortunately, he missed the point.
“You look furious about something,” he continued, apparently oblivious. I could tell he was referring to my expression as I read and not my reaction to his intrusion. Oh well, I was standing in the middle of the office’s equivalent of Grand Central Station, so his assumption I wasn’t looking for privacy was understandable.
“It’s this ridiculous article on our government’s plan to take the Arts and Humanities out of the school curriculum,” I said.
“Sounds like it’s not the article that’s ridiculous,” he countered; “more like the government, I’d say.” I gave him the requisite eye roll he deserved.
“Fine; but if we choose our government in this country, then it’s the same thing as saying we choose to deny our children the advantages past on by our culture and heritage. We have to stand up and do something about it, not just write articles in the Times.”
“I thought there was more emphasis lately on the liberal arts in high school and college,” my unwitting punching bag returned, gamely trying to join the argument again.
“Too late,” I distinctly remember saying, even though it was ‘once upon a time’; “much too late. We need to teach the humanities right from the start. Arguing about how much art, music and creative writing to include in high school or college is like closing the proverbial barn door. We need to start in nursery school and never stop. There should be no question about including the arts in primary school curriculum; none whatsoever!”
I can still remember my poor colleague backing out of the door, nodding vigorously to placate me as he escaped; but it didn’t work. I still feel irate, sad and compromised today, at least two decades later, as I read about how completely the humanities have been abandoned in place of vocational training of all kinds. I feel even worse when I hear from parents of young children about how they have to pay for separate art, dance and music classes after school because there are none offered during the daily curriculum; this is in the most expensive independent schools, not only the government funded ones. The inference is clear: kids don’t need arts education as a part of their core program of study.
Parents rail against the cost of education, especially college, and expound on the need to see a direct correlation to the salary their offspring can expect from the training they receive. It’s all quantifiable, they say, so don’t take up my money and their time with any of that touchy-feely stuff. Even the smallest amount of research shows how wrong they are, in that the humanities have been quantifiably proven to advance communication skills, decision making and holistic, interdisciplinary thinking. I don’t want to get into exploring the definition of the humanities, even knowing there are derivations that form different parameters. Right now I only want to see them as the record of the development of humanity over time in all its literal and figurative iterations. They tell us who we were, and therefore who we are now; and the arts are their communicators; the language of the humanities; the idioms that tell us how we are all, every single one of us, connected.
I want every child, from the very beginning of his or her intellectual life (and perhaps before), to experience the excitement of connection, and there’s no better way than through the language of the arts. If we don’t teach it to them in school, we’ll have to do it at home. Aren’t kids people too? Shouldn’t they know it? There’s no better way to show them than through an education in the arts; no better way they can experience the power of connection.