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Flowerless STEM

stem

STEM is such an oft-used acronym that people outside of the education industry no longer think of flowers and plants when hearing it. The origin of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math emphasis is a response to the United States’ position in the international market. In 2006 President G.W. Bush initiated policies to increase federal funding to support STEM education and output as a response to concerns that the U.S. was falling behind. That same year the Unites Sates National Academies (comprised of; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Research Council) issued a plan to federal policy makers to address their concerns regarding the declining state of U.S. STEM education. When the President and national academies directly involved with very lucrative industry call for action, attention is usually paid.

Not many people would argue with improved education and higher standards in any subject. But when an initiative seems reactionary and the response narrow in focus, there is concern. Determining that there is an industry, in which the U.S. is not leading the way let alone keeping up, is relatively unprecedented. It is no wonder that we’ve reacted so strongly and rapidly. It’s a little disconcerting to start to lose one’s superpowers. But to focus on one area of study is tantamount to remodeling K-12 public education into vocational training. To do this while ignoring what other factors make many other nations superior in their industry and education is shortsighted. There are so many cultural, political and traditional differences in the ways countries conduct their business and education.

There are places in which children attend school six days a week and are in lengthy after school classes well into the evening. (There are countries in which one’s work life is as intense and prescribed as well.) There are countries in which K-12 educators are highly trained and paid and are given professional latitude and respect. But we don’t seem to be selecting much from the international buffet table beyond STEM emphasis; and that is what leads to thoughts of shortsightedness. When the money and policies are focused on one area it is inevitable that other areas will suffer. It is often those areas that are less quantifiable but no less necessary in the modern world. Most often and most likely it is Language Arts, History and the Fine Arts that are left behind. Science, math, engineering and technology are fabulous tools to help to understand how our world works and how to work within it. But being well educated is more than being well trained in one area. Understanding the world around us and knowing how to communicate to that world in which we live, knowing how to write, speak, and process the written word are crucial skills; without them there is no sharing of STEM or any other discoveries.

Without a sense of national and international history we are destined to stumble through the world half-seeing. Without exposure and access to the performing and fine arts what (to paraphrase President Franklin D. Roosevelt) are we even fighting for? The arts reflect the times in which they were created and are vibrant and pulsing history lessons. They also stretch the intellect and help us to see the entire world in more vibrant hues. Education (unlike job training) is meant to open and fill our minds. We need to be taught subjects but also how to critically think for ourselves. Education should be broad, deep and challenging. We should bolster STEM studies, and we should also ramp up all liberal arts studies. There will never be a national consortium of arts organizations with serious economic juice. But it is certainly well within the power of federal policy makers to invest in well-rounded education for all.

We have never been a country striving to make everything the same. We celebrate our diversities. We get a kick out of our different dialects, names for foods, and local customs. We are a 31 flavors kinda people. Do we really want the primary focus of our K-12 system to be in one subject area? Where will the political scientists, playwrights and lawyers come from? How will we get well-rounded novelists, historians and Supreme Court justices? There’s no doubt that our education system is not what it once was. Schools are asked to do way too many things besides educate, teachers are not treated well, and funding is elusive. The answer is not to be found by sticking our fingers in our ears and muttering “la la la STEM.’ We’re better than that, we’re bigger than that and we’re certainly more interesting than that.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Education

 

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All The World’s A Stage

Playhouse-90-Requiem-for-a-Heavyweight

20th Century Fox has created a Broadway division to produce film-to-stage productions. This is newsworthy as they are the last movie studio to do so. It isn’t that Fox has shied from the stage; the ill-fated 9-5 musical was a Fox picture. But they have not had an in-house formal process for repackaging movies into stage productions. Now this type of news is likely to send a certain demographic into a bit of a crise (say; the kind of person who uses the word “crise” or “picture” instead of “movie”.) But if we slowly dismantle and examine the conceit, we may not have to draw the curtains and take to our beds.

First off, having a film-to-stage production division is not synonymous with big-box theme park type productions. It is also does not mean that dramas or even comedies will necessarily be turned into chirpy musicals. (I know, I know, you’re making your “Let’s start with The Color Purple” list right now, but hear me out.) 20th Century Fox plans to have 9-12 projects slated to jumpstart this initiative. They’ve indicated that these productions are not necessarily Broadway bound. This disclosure increases the odds that regional theatre will occur and to do so there will have to be smaller productions. Regional theatre is always welcome.

There was a time when almost every Broadway production took to the roads. (And this was back when there were dozens and dozens of productions on the Great White Way at any given time.) Often the original cast would make the tour. Not only did this give life and exposure to a play and its creative team, it made live theatre accessible. A diverse audience was cultivated and that in turn supported live theatre. More audience equaled more revenue equaled more opportunities for creativity (on the part of producers) and more jobs. Times have changed and the result of those changes is an elitism of Broadway. To get on a Broadway stage a production better be damn sure it will make money. A New York City audience is not enough to ensure a full house. Visitors must buy tickets and buy them at a very high price. If visitors come from lands no longer exposed to Broadway theatre on a seasonal regional basis; a little flash is necessary. A boldface name (e.g., a television star, a reality show contestant, or a recording artist) combined with a known property (e.g., a revival or film-to-stage production) greatly increases the seats sold. Ticket prices have skyrocketed, presumably to sustain the boldface salaries and bells & whistles of a big-box show. This in turn creates a phenomenon known as “consumer grade inflation” (just because I made it up doesn’t mean that it’s not a phenomenon.) Someone who procures tickets for a price of over $100 a piece (and I’m being conservative) is not likely to be all that critical. People aren’t stupid, (stay with me on this) they know when they’re paying more than something is worth. Ask any real estate agent how their clients behave once they’ve outbid other buyers. Take a look at people willing to dine at 5:30 PM or be treated like vermin by a maitre d’. Most likely they’re doing so for the bragging rights, and brags don’t begin with “Wow, was he/she miscast!” or “Lots of noise, little fury.” At $100+ a ticket you are going to enjoy it dammit. And that ladies and gentlemen is how the standing ovation reflex was born.

By bringing professionally produced theatre into the regions we stand to turn the tide just a bit. Arts education has suffered in public schools. It’s been decades since networks televised stage plays. Singing and dancing contests now dot the airwaves, and this should be taken as a sign of interest in the performing arts. It stands to reason that tickets sold by 20th Century Fox will sell. Yes, there’s a chance that X-Men The Musical will be green-lighted. But there’s also a chance that more, shall we say; human stories will be told. The simple act of developing a theatre habit has a ripple effect. People who attend the theatre on a regular basis are more likely to be a discerning audience. Buying tickets for a Broadway show will no longer be synonymous with buying tickets for a tourist attraction. A curious audience with an appetite for adventure will support more creative offerings. Less reliance on celebrity or flying machines means lower ticket prices. A lower ticket prices creates more of an audience. And so on and so on…

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2013 in Media/Marketing

 

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Reading, Writing, Rigoletto

There is enough bad news (or at least, not such good news) about the state of education to go around.  When a story comes out, no matter how small, I feel like a Who shouting loudly, for one and for all.  Imagine my joy as I woke to discover, that teaching of arts has edged out Red Rover.

According to a piece today by Kyle Spencer there are city schools offering arts “electives” during traditional recess periods.  Music, art, dance and theatre are being taught in elementary schools.  Adult volunteers are creating mini-book clubs.  Yes, it is only a handful of schools (for now,) but it is so very encouraging, no?  Before anyone gets all “what about their unstructured playtime of recess” on me.  One need only consider the climate of primary education, to realize there is not a whole lot of unstructured activity being encouraged.  I don’t think (and I could be wrong) there is a lot of creative organic play happening in the school yard during recess.  I think what’s happening are the same dull or painful games of my youth (including standing around in clusters determining whom to ostracize.)

Having children exposed to music is invaluable.  Even if one doesn’t see a value in culture, there is no denying the mathematical component of music education.  The same cross-disciplinary benefits can be had in visual arts (science) dance (biology) and theatre (history, English.)  I would argue that we can no more afford to raise a generation without math, science and language skills than we can, without a cultural education.  Future doctors, business people, public servants and parents, need more than test scores.  They need to understand the world in which they live and those that lived before them.  There is no better vehicle than the arts to make all of that come alive for a child.

I grew up during a glorious time of robust educational resources and an engaged artistically oriented community.  It is because of that great fortune, that I champion the same for children today.  My 5th grade play was The H.M.S. Pinafore.  Are any schools still performing Gilbert & Sullivan?  Do children even “get” the Simpons’ Pirates of Penzance references?  Are any schools still mounting any production that doesn’t involve head microphones, hair extensions and copious amounts of make-up?

Art is substantive.  If we want a generation of people who can discern between quality and clever marketing, we need to expose them to the real thing.  There is nothing wrong with fluff, but it is the peanut butter beneath it where the nourishment lies.  Ideally the arts should be integrated into the curriculum, and not seen as an “elective.”  Until that time however, I will shout from the rooftops with glee that children are learning embroidery!

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Childhood, Education

 

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