I Sit and Look Out: Washington should stop leaving boro kids behind

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What Happened? (Part II)

I fully support the need for every child to be literate in the English language. If you can’t speak, read and write English properly in this country, your chances for success are practically nil. Generations of immigrants have realized that. I also support the need for students to be knowledgeable in mathematics.

I would like to see more science taught, too. And environmental education in our continually threatened world is vital.

But what I cannot understand is the lack of attention to such programs as art and music. These are not frills. They were part of my education in this borough in all the time I attended public schools, and I can assure you those years were not the best financially for the city.

Brian Kellow, a music critic, had this to say not long ago: “Why are we afraid of, almost embarrassed by, the idea that arts and culture are an integral part of the civilized world?” Why, indeed.

According to Hollis Headrick of the Center for Arts Education, “Because arts education is not tested, it tends to be treated as something that does not have value in the curriculum.” All too true.

And this dumbing down of education has been going on for far too long.

John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is in his late 30s. He points out that he “cannot recite a single poem,” because it was determined years ago that rote learning (apparently of any subject) destroyed the creativity of human beings and he was never asked to memorize any lines of poetry.

McWhorter notes that if a Russian teenager is asked to recite some poetry, he “will give you strophes of Pushkin.” Apparently our fragile American children will be scarred for life if they have to recall a few lines of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Whitman or Dickinson. Heaven forfend!

There is, I am glad to say, a hopeful note: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is well-known for his personal support of the arts, has indicated that music and art will be returning to our public schools. Let us sincerely hope so.

What about books? I always loved history and I can remember taking a history book home the first day of class in elementary school and reading it like a novel. Do kids get to take books home from school anymore?

And, unless my memory is failing me completely, I remember that every time I needed to use the Elmhurst branch of the Queens Library, it was open. The wonderful children’s room was a magical place. But the last time I was there, the entrance from the street to that room was closed and, of course, we know that recent budget cuts have made more precious than ever the hours libraries are open.

Sure, you can get to the children’s room through the main doors, but somehow it is not the same as having “your own” entrance, even though you’re a child.

I thought, perhaps, that my memories were wrong, but I spoke not long ago with a former resident of the Broadway Flushing area who attended public schools about the time I did. He clearly remembered art and music classes.

This man even remembered that part-time nurses were on duty. (But on this matter, there may be some good news: In late February, a bill was introduced in the City Council to require a nurse in every public and private elementary and middle school that has at least 200 students.)

As I recall, my junior high school in Maspeth had art and music teachers and so did Newtown High School, and in one way or another, all of us were exposed to these “fringes,” which are part of the liberal arts education that should be the foundation of the education of every citizen in a democracy.

For many kids from poor or lower-middle-class homes, such exposure was the first and perhaps the only time they learned about art and heard what we call classical music. The situation is sadly the same today in so many of our poor neighborhoods in Queens.

So what happened? In our own hard times, which are not unique, why have music and art been so much left outside the sphere of accepted education? What are our priorities for learning in the world’s greatest city in the world’s most powerful country? And why can’t they include art and music? And books that students can take home?

Aren’t we all tired of the rhetoric of Leave No Child Behind? Isn’t all the talk out of Washington what we New Yorkers refer to as “bushwa,” which, for those who don’t know, is a polite slang term for another word that begins with a “b.”

Where’s the money to do what the talk says should be done? There was supposed to be $18 billion from the federal government to flesh out this program, but when push came to shove, only $12 billion was requested. And this is to say nothing about what good educators — not the ones with axes to grind — say are the wrong emphases of the program to begin with. How about less talk about education and more walk?

Or, as some suspect, are there really forces at work in Washington that are trying to strangle public education in this country?

The great Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats wrote: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

But remember, I don’t know much about economics, right? So perhaps those who claim such knowledge can enlighten me and others who think like me and who remember that even in the toughest of times we did not neglect some basics in education right here in Queens.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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