Saturday, April 2, 2011

Eating Our Young

In the jungle of Ecuador, I was taken by my Shuar Indian guide one night to a pond where a crocodile was tied up. He explained to me that this particular mother had started to eat its babies and that they tied her up until they were old enough to survive. Apparently, some reptiles have the counter-evolutionary habit of eating their own young. Well, what can you expect from a crocodile?

But speaking of counter-evolutionary trends, this is the latest—the highest order of species, homo sapiens, in the country that historically thinks of itself as a beacon of light in human history and culture, is now habitually eating its young.

I’m at a conference in Baltimore and listening to the usual table talk of how things are in each geographical area. In Baltimore, principals can decide where funds go and thus, will often choose to hire hall monitors and security guards instead of funding arts programs. This may seem like protecting the young from eating each other, but truth be told, that vicious Lord-of-the-Flies-syndrome happens precisely when adults abandon the young, when children sense that adults don’t care to give them what they need and just use them as fodder for some heartless test-score machine.

And what do the children need? Affection, affirmation, challenge, beauty, relevance, communion, connection, risk, love, all the things that good arts programs and good teaching in general might give them. Instead of committing to schools as a place to grow culture, as life-affirming places to create, nurture, cultivate the promise of human capability, they’ve become armed camps with children prisoners of Gestapo test-makers. And so security guards trumps arts teachers.

The stories continue. Back in Florida, a community college visual arts teacher has students in a required art history class and reports that the students come in terrified of art. Why? Because they’ve been given nothing in their schools and even less in the shopping malls, TV shows, radio stations and arsenal of electronic distraction. Whole generations coming up afraid of Giotto, Renoir and Picasso.

Of course, everywhere the reason is the same—budget cuts—and even the arts teachers themselves nod their heads and shrug their shoulders in a gesture of helplessness, as if art or education or medical care is understandably the first thing we should cut in hard times. And yet in Cuba, during their “Special Period” in the 90’s—the years of severe economic depression when Russia had collapsed and the US continued (and still does!) its cruel embargo—not a single penny was taken from education and health care. Not a penny. Why? Because of the commendable values that these things matter and should be the last to suffer, not the first.

We’ll traipse over to Afghanistan and beef up the Pentagon in a second to “defend the cause of freedom,” we’ll bail out the very same greedy corporate vultures who shamelessly collapsed our finances in a minute, let them fly to the meeting in their private jets, we’ll sit by while corporate CEO’s continue to triple their salary every year, we’ll build giant sports stadiums to indulge in our Roman-like spectacles, but when it comes time to support a school or fund an arts program, we passively accept “there’s just not enough money.”

How long can this go on? When will we stop eating our own young? And not just the young. The home where my mother lives will no longer accept residents because of cuts in Medical. So we’ll abandon the elders too, it seems.  A culture that neglects its young and abandons its elders is not even worthy of the word “culture.” Cultures, whether with people or yogurt, help things to grow and develop and require care.

These are not happy thoughts to start the day. Today I go teach a workshop to 300 teachers who might not have a job next year, reminding them of what is possible. Maybe after a joyful romp of singing, playing and dancing, we’ll go out to the streets and scream a while and then go down the road to Washington, burst into Congress, shake the senators by the shoulders and shout “Can’t you see what we’re doing here?!!!” And then do a few dances, sing a few songs and sit down at the table to figure out who we need to tie up to stop them from eating their young. Then we’ll get down to the serious work of putting money into what’s important—growing the next generation of human beings and caring for those who helped grow us. Won’t you join us?

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