Dana Gioia Means Well, But…

July 22, 2007

by Tammy Drennan

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, gave the commencement speech this year at Stanford University (reprinted in short in the 7/19/07 Wall Street Journal) – in which he bemoaned the loss of the arts as part of our lives, then suggested that they should be made part of the government’s education system which is “the one social force large and strong enough to counterbalance this commercialization of cultural values” and is “mandatory and freely available to everyone.”

He made some good points in his speech: “Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. [Its real purpose] is to create complete human beings. To compete successfully, this country needs creativity, ingenuity and innovation.”

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in its infancy – in the early 1800s, before compulsory state schooling took over – he noted that every home he visited boasted works of Shakespeare, and they weren’t just bookcase decorations – people read and loved them. They read and loved them without the help of teachers to interpret them or help them with the hard words.

Besides Shakespeare, Americans were reading the likes of Dickens and Melville and Cooper – on their own, for fun, without being told about the books in school or being assigned to read them. They knew how to read and they enjoyed literature. Without “mandatory and freely available” schooling.

Over 50 years before Tocqueville’s visit, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a non-fiction piece of literature, became a best-seller among a highly literate society that benefited from an almost entirely private system of educating its young. The city of Philadelphia, where Common Sense was first printed, boasted 27 printing presses, six newspapers and 30 book shops serving a population of 30,000.

People read Common Sense for the sheer excitement of it, not because it was assigned or taught. It was reported that there was one copy of Common Sense for every five inhabitants of America. To put that in perspective, an equal best seller today would have to sell 60 million copies. The first Harry Potter book, the best selling one, sold a total of 17 million copies in the U.S

In his excellent book 46 Pages, Scott Liell has this to say about Philadelphia of 1776, “A rich cultural schedule of plays, music, art exhibits and scientific lectures was patronized by a very wealthy class of merchants and a growing, prosperous middle class.” He later makes reference to Philadelphia’s “large, literate artisan class.” And later yet, “A great number of the city’s artisans and tradesmen had already been accustomed to voting for their representatives in the Pennsylvania assembly and so took great interest in the political debates.” In fact, many poor people made their way into these areas of cultural life (Thomas Paine was pretty poor himself for a long time) without raising any eyebrows.

People in all parts of pre-government-schooling America enjoyed literature, art of various forms, music and other cultural enrichments as part of their uncompelled social lives. And the trend was growing.

So what has happened? Even when Mr. Gioia was in school (which he looks back upon as better days in public education), literature had become the possession of teachers instead of everyone. Instead of dipping into the profusion of great books available, students read as they were assigned to read and depended on teachers to interpret.

Music also increasingly became a possession of schools. Likewise, art appreciation.

It is only because the human spirit is so resilient and some people are so compelled by the arts that a number still pursue these passions outside the confines of school (this is especially true of music).

Now, it’s true that schools have largely dropped the arts from their agendas, and we might think, “Thank goodness” instead of “Oh no.” Now the arts stand a chance of becoming possessions of the people again. It may take a little time. There’s still a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths from years of school arts – doled out sparsely, incrementally and forcibly, tested and graded.

But to be sure, there are glimmers of hope. There’s a private school in New Jersey that does knock-out musicals every year. Homeschoolers (many of them with very limited incomes) embrace the arts with a passion, visiting art museums and studying famous artists at home, putting on plays, listening to the great composers and tasting of music from around the world and taking music lessons and playing in bands and orchestras, learning dance and studying opera, reading the literature of the ages, and reading and writing poetry.

The one thing we can do to prevent a new blossoming of the arts is put it back in the hands of bureaucrats and those who use them to promote their various agendas.

It is in freedom that people thrive – economically, academically, socially, and artistically. Our public schools did not give us a creative, ingenious, innovative America. We had that for over 200 years before social activists and politicians gave us compulsory state education and the inevitable shrinkage of intellect and spirit that accompanies it.

Government and compulsion are adequate answers to very little in life. Education and creativity are no exceptions to the rule.

Freedom is an adequate answer to many things in life. Education and creativity are two of them.

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Recommended Reading:

46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence by Scott Liell

K-State Landon Lecture David McCullough
The Founders: The Greatest Generation
http://www.mediarelations.k-state.edu/WEB/News/NewsReleases/mcculloughtext20202.html