Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Seventh Generation


It felt good to vent my outrage over the state of education in the last entry, but of course, I know it’s like throwing a pebble at a tank. Yesterday I read that Sec. of Education Arnie Duncan said the “82% of our schools are failing.” Hmm. That’s like giving a test to your students in class. If 82% of them fail, it means you did a pretty lousy job teaching them and have to recalibrate your goals and expectations. And once again we must ask, “What is the standard of success? How do you measure the culture of a school? The happiness of its students?” Well, Bhutan has some Gross National Product of Happiness and it’s actually quite easy to measure. Just walk into a school (or Bhutan), open your eyes and look at the kids. If they’re smiling, singing while they work, excited in their endeavors, enjoying each other’s company, that’s a good sign. Give them an A.

In my last entry, I suggested that a dynamic arts education is now far beyond the status of a luxury—it is a necessity for our future survival. If you ask me to elaborate, my first question is “How much time do you have?” I have a long list of stories, poems, philosophical treatises, scientific research and beyond. Not to mention an invitation to participate in my classes so you can know for yourself.

But I’m sure most people reading would dismiss the idea as the ravings of a lunatic. Because to understand what I mean takes a little bit of imagination and that is precisely what we are in such short supply of these days. I imagine that politicians looking at school budget numbers and deciding what to cut see it as a cut-and-dry matter of simple math. But when it comes to education, we need a larger vision and this kind of thinking doesn’t register on the radar. And it’s not entirely anybody’s fault. After all, we are products of an education that killed our curiosity, neglected our character, ignored our passion, set us against each other in a cutthroat competition for first place as we elbowed our way to the top or dropped out of the race altogether to just make-do.

Vision means that you look beyond the tip of your nose, see further than the immediate fight for survival, be it economic or physical, to the ideas and practices that will sustain us seven generations down the line. This idea of far-ranging decision-making, first articulated by the Iroquois in their governing principles and now reduced to the name of a cleaning product, is precisely what we need to consider when we’re thinking about schools, what to keep, what to change, what to get rid of.

That’s why poets and musicians and philosophers should all have a chair at the table of the school board, the Town Council or the Congress. Last night, I heard the San Francisco Jazz Collective perform their extraordinary music, creating new works from the genius works of the past (in this case, the music of Stevie Wonder), marrying the past, present and future with such intelligence, heart, soul and comradery. One of their members, the vibraphonist Stefon Harris, spoke so eloquently about their work and how fascinated he was by letting his son explore freely on drums without correcting him or over-guiding him and how extraordinary the results. I nominate Stefon for the new Secretary of Education! And I wouldn’t mind running myself.

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