Saturday, May 28, 2011

These Are the Good Ol' Days

At a recent staff meeting devoted to the topic of “maintaining school culture amidst changing times,” I surprised myself by standing up and saying, “I’m not nostalgic for the program we used to have. I think in many ways the school is better than ever—these are the good ol’ days!”

And in some ways, that’s true. Though I listen to old cassette tapes and the pieces I did with the kids back then mostly hold up, I think the music program at The SF School is better than ever (due in large part to the incredible work of colleagues Sofia and James). And I believe that’s also true of many programs and aspects of the school. When people stick around for a while, they do often build from a base of “good” to a next step of “better.” And when new teachers come in, they build from that inherited base that saves them from having to reinvent many wheels and allows them to concentrate on their driving.

And yet, all creative work—and good education is creative work—is subject to the rise and fall of inspiration and particular constellations of culture. What certain units of school study now gain in clarity and focus, they might lose in freshness and discovery. So the equation is never simple and requires constant attention to the delicate balance between the experimental and the tried-and-true.

The surprise of my statement came from my frequent complaints that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, with signed legal requirements before entering the basket and a GPS-encoded destination complete with pre-programmed itinerary—guaranteed to bring no surprise or mystery. At the same time that I think the programs at my school are mostly improving, there is a great deal of loss as well—mostly, increased pressure from the outside to dot every i and cross every t in the standard and uniform manner of every other school and the yet more worrisome sense that the new generation of administrators don’t see the danger of looking to “best practices of corporations” as the guiding light of decision-making. What makes a dynamic living culture is vision, risk, trust in our capacities to mess around and try things out, guided by that flimsiest and yet, sturdiest of our capacities, the ability to dream. To hold true to an image of how it’s s’posed to be and do whatever it takes to fulfill that promise. And when I think about the Golden Ages of human culture, it always has something to do with that fresh energy of dipping into the bottomless well of the imagination not knowing what the final form will take, but trusting in the process of arriving.

This theme of “the Golden Age—then or now?” was a major thread in Woody Allen’s fabulous new movie, Midnight in Paris. Driving home, my wife asked me if there was a time when I would have preferred to live, a question so provocative that it was fifteen minutes of talking before I was ready to turn around and ask, “And you?” (Making her sorry she asked. And even sorrier that I hadn’t asked back earlier! Oops!) But though I also have been fascinated by Paris in the 20’s, by Harlem in the 40’s, by San Francisco in the 60’s (just missed it), it wasn’t so much about returning nostalgically to an earlier time, but more about the excitement of living in the midst of a living, vital culture out on the edge of mainstream.

I remember the period, say between 1964 and 1972, when we eagerly awaited the new album not from one artist, but dozens—Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Beach Boys, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin. The Supremes, The Temptations, Crosby-Stills-Nash-Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Doors, Credence Clearwater Revival, The  Youngbloods, The Byrds,  Santana, Incredible String Band, Donovan, Cat Stevens, Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins. As the Weavers said, ”Wasn’t that a time!” Compare that to the rock groups of the Reagan Years (1980-88) and the contrast is stunning.

That was a period I actually lived through. But if I could be a fly on the wall in a different era, as Woody Allen’s character was, I wouldn’t mind hanging out on New York’s 52nd St. in the late 40’s, where jazz clubs featured Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, as well as some of the young jazz cats who worked their ideas out at further uptown at Minton’s in Harlem—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Milt Jackson, Charles Mingus.

And I agree with Woody’s character that the 20’s were a time of great cultural explosion, not only in Paris, but elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. as well. Indeed, in my book “The ABC’s of Education,” I include a list of notable artistic accomplishments between 1921 and 1925 that includes major publications by W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Rainer Marie Rilke, Gertrude Stein, e.e.cummings, Robert Frost, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis. In the art world, Picasso, Braque, Salvador Dali, Georgia O-Keefe, Stuart Davis were busy at work, in the music world, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern composed major works, Louis Armstrong was in Chicago and then New York, George Gershwin premiered Rhapsody in Blue. Josephine Baker was dancing in Paris, Isadora Duncan in Greece and Russia, Martha Graham formed her own company. And in 1924, a young Carl Orff collaborated with dancer/artist Dorothee Gunther to begin the experiments that led to my job and life’s path (thank you, Carl). Exciting times all.

What they all have in common is that sensation of being on the edge, at the end of one world dying and another just being born. The 20’s and 40’s cultural explosions came in the aftermath of two world wars, the 60’s in the midst of trying to prevent a third one. And note who’s leading the cultural shifts (or at least serving as antennae to speak what’s in the air) —the artists. Not the insurance adjusters, lawyers, media moguls, the marketing folks, the corporate executives. Artists. And in cultures where the pace of change has been slower and no counter-culture is necessary because the whole culture is alive and vibrant—I’m thinking of Bali, for example—it is the daily renewal of art in all its faces that is keeping it all going. Not art as a specialized subject, but at the center of life well-lived, where “art” is simply doing things well with care, attention, color and life.

One of the big points of the film is that when you’re in the midst of it all, it’s sometimes hard to feel that “these are the good ol’ days.” Key characters in the film keep looking back to when it was even better—at least in their imagination. Every generation feels the pinch of their times, the things that restrict, narrow, diminish us. Here are a few sentences I might have written yesterday: The arts have failed; fewer people are interested in them every generation. The mere business of living, of making money, of amusing oneself, occupies people more and more, and makes them less and less capable of the difficult art of appreciation.” Who actually said that? W.B. Yeats. In 1901.

I do feel that in my own small world, I have tasted the excitement of making it up as we went along as we did at The San Francisco School for several decades. We made mistakes that I would never care to repeat, but they were always our mistakes and thus, authentic and leading us to a new, improved version. Now we’re in danger of inheriting someone else’s mistakes as we lose trust in our own judgment and intelligence and try to square off all our rough edges by following advice from loan companies and Independent School Associations.

Same in the Orff world. The course I direct is the grandchild of the course I took with Avon Gillespie and it is a better course in dozens of tangible ways. But even here, we have to be vigilant about losing the experimental atmosphere that made Avon’s work so exciting and memorable. We need to constantly renew ourselves at the altar of possibility and watch out for being too complacent—“this is how we do it, this is how it works.” And we certainly would be wise to fiercely resist adapting our radical approach to fit into the narrow hallways of National Standards and Smart-Board technologies.

Go see the film and talk with your friends; “What time would you have liked to live in? Why?” (By the way, my wife’s answer when I finally shut up was to hang out with the Bay Area Figurative painters in the 1950’s). The point of looking back to the past is to renew the qualities gone underground in the present to bring them forth in new forms for the future. And you may quote me.

These indeed are “the good ol’ days” if we pay attention in the right ways.

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