Imagine an educational system in a large American city that would test every sixth grader for musical skills – pitch acuity, manual dexterity, enthusiasm about public performance – and then put the most motivated of them in a seventh grade music class that met for a full class period every day where each student would be handed a brand new musical instrument for practice and performance. Then let’s add a corps of highly educated, motivated, and talented music teachers who work with individual students on the technique required to play each instrument well and who assemble and conduct bands, orchestras, jazz ensembles, and choruses which perform for their fellow students throughout the school year.
If this sounds like the idealistic fantasies of a frustrated educational innovator, think again.
What I have just described is exactly the environment I experienced when I went to a New York City junior high school located in the borough of Queens in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Sadly this magnificent system that sought out talent and motivation, and that included students from every ethnic group and religion, no longer exists in the New York City school system of 2011.
The reasons for the dissolution of such a powerful system are attributed today to economic conditions of the 1970’s and an effort to put greater emphasis on core courses like English or mathematics, but the real reason is much more troubling. Our educational systems around America no longer have leaders who put value on artistic experiences within primary and secondary school curricula.
Juilliard currently runs a program started in 1990 called the Music Advancement Program (MAP) which recruits and enrolls under-represented and economically disadvantaged children for a Saturday program at our School at Lincoln Center, where each student has a private music lesson with an experienced teacher, as well as ensemble experiences and classes in music theory and history. Invariably these MAP students (who range in age from 8 to 14) not only excel in their chosen instrument but also realize better grades in their academic studies and are identified as leaders by their peers in school and beyond.
The reasons for this success are not highly complex or esoteric, in my view. Our MAP students embrace the beauty, discipline, and pure joy of making music. They are encouraged – actually required – to use their imaginations and creativity to realize their musical goals. Their group work with their fellow student musicians make them better listeners and more empathetic individuals. They are motivated because they come to appreciate the complexity and challenges of what it is to be a serious musician and to accomplish set goals with clarity and a type of personal courage that would be appreciated by anyone who has ever tried to perform in public.
Today the arts are simply undervalued or completely ignored by many school systems around America. In New York City, teachers, principals, and entire schools are evaluated based on test scores in reading, mathematics, the sciences, but not in the arts.
I have met troubled school principals throughout New York City who have supported thriving arts programs in their individual schools and are frustrated by the fact that these arts programs are not considered when their schools are evaluated for the effectiveness of their teaching. As a result, these administrators and teachers often become despondent and either give up on these arts programs or simply disappear into retirement because New York City has no structural way to reward these educational leaders for their good work in the arts.
Sadly, America has had a long history of ignoring or undervaluing the arts. Today we see a disturbing number of our representatives in Washington, D.C. working to eliminate both the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, although each endowment’s budget is in the range of $150 million – a paltry sum when viewed in the context of the current federal budget.
Recently, the House Committee on Education & the Workforce approved HR 1891, repealing specific provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. This new bill terminates 42 federal education programs, including the longstanding Arts in Education program at the U.S. Department of Education. Of major concern is that HR 1891 permanently strips policy language out of ESEA that allows Arts in Education to be funded each year.
It is time that legislators, school administrators, parents and the general public collectively come together to reinstate the presence of the arts in our schools’ curricula. Some of the attributes that we value most in our country – discipline, creativity, imagination, empathy, unconventional thinking – are exactly the qualities that are nurtured and developed by the study of the arts.
Let us not let down another generation of our children by allowing the arts to be disregarded by our educational systems around America.
Joseph Polisi is the president of The Juilliard School and an accomplished bassoonist.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.