November 12, 2008

Barack the Music

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Raise your hand if you’ve seen the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, directed by Stephen Herek. Raise your hand if you liked it, and if you thought there was a salient message about the arts embedded therein.
My hand is up. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, which — since it’s a rather dorky thing to see — I’m guessing is most of you, Mr. Holland’s Opus is about an inspiring music teacher, Glenn Holland. Although most of the movie focuses on how he manages to get through to his students, and how music helps him to connect with his deaf son, at the end he is forced into early retirement by arts-related budget cuts. Hmm.
The film inspired its composer, Michael Kamen, to found the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation in 1996, which donates musical instruments to programs nationwide that can’t afford the upkeep.
As I’m sure most of you would agree — raise your hand if you played an instrument or sang in the chorus in high school — the arts are something to be valued in public schools. I and my closest friends were, as you read in last week’s column, some of the most prominent participants in my high school’s music program. And, I have to say I really miss participating now. If it had never existed … well, that would’ve sucked. (The particular eloquence of that sentence almost makes me think I should be advocating English program reform instead).
A recent slew of unfunded mandates, handed down by the presidential administration we are finally kicking to the curb, has put financial burdens on a lot of public high schools that were doing just fine, not so long ago. My own high school comes to mind, as budget woes wracked the school my senior year (unfortunately, several months before I was allowed to vote). The first things to suffer? Music and sports. An entire music position was cut, and the teachers remaining (my mother included) had to take on extra work.
This, as always, is a tricky situation. If you have to cut something, do you cut the programs like music and sports, which provide culture, creativity and outlets for those gifted in ways other than academically? Or do you slash academics, and risk the quality of your traditional education and college admissions? (Please note that I believe music and sports, and the arts in general, are an integral part of a truly quality education).
But, clichéd as it is to say, there is hope. President-elect Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected president, was also the first president elected with a national arts policy committee (a 33-person committee, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and the founder of the American Film Institute). In fact, he is the only presidential candidate, victorious or not, ever to have created such a thing. This guy just gets better and better, doesn’t he?
Obama’s policy on the arts and art education (as opposed to McCain’s, which was virtually non-existent) calls for federal funding of the arts, programs to assist the arts in schools and an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been the main culprit for unfunded mandates and, thus, the slashing of the arts in schools. His program ideas include the creation of an “Artists Corps,” similar to the Teach for America program, which trains young artists to work in low-income schools. He has proposed to increase resources for the U.S. Department of Education’s arts programs, and plans to increase funding to the National Education Association. He will provide health care to the artists themselves, and has suggested the need for “cultural diplomacy,” using art and artists overseas as ambassadors to show the world what America values.
Sounds pretty damn good to me. Arts organizations across the country gave their support to Barack Obama, and even if it was the last thing on your mind when you went to the polls last week, if you voted for Barack Obama, you did the right thing for music in the schools. And for the arts across the country.
To wrap this up: Raise your hand if you were at the Decemberists concert this weekend! If you were, you would have seen that the band had thrown in their lot with Barack Obama, and his ideas about the arts in America. We chanted “Yes We Can” and “Yes We Did,” in a call-and-answer format, fists raised. It was awesome.