Reflections on the Role of the Arts and Education in Cultural Change Today

“Peace, justice, and equality,” says Mary Travers on the TV screen. “Keep on singing.”

“As long as we listen to the music, American will always have Peter, Paul and Mary,” says the PBS host of a recent retrospective documentary.

Peter Pan Live, or protester die-ins on the streets of NYC – which to watch??? Flip back and forth?

We’re in the middle of an important moment in the history of our democracy. Just like the somewhat comparable period in the 1960s, when we’re in the middle it’s hard to know exactly where we are, never mind where we’re going! There is turmoil in the world, turmoil and unrest in America, and the same economic and racial/cultural inequities that are the source of tensions – the heat that keeps the pot boiling.

Many of the leaders who galvanized the country in the ‘60s: artists, musicians, actors, and dancers, and a fledgling media through radio and emerging television have given way to a new generation. I just watched a PBS special on Peter, Paul and Mary (joined at one point by Pete Seeger), who created the folk classics of our collective consciousness – “If I Had a Hammer” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “Jet Plane” “Deportee,” “Don’t Laugh at Me” “Stew ball” . . . (I know, they’re white and so am I.)

Someone this week had a student ask, “Why do I have to learn music?” While there are many answers to this question, one surely must be that music is the soundtrack of our lives and history, not only recording it, but driving it. Music galvanizes the audience to recognize, analyze, and commit to what is right, just, equitable and peaceful – and challenges each individual to stand a be counted as part of a just community. Music and the arts touch not only the head, but the heart and soul – they inform our humanity.

The question I want to ask is, what should I be doing as an educational leader, as an artist, as a member of this democratic society, and as a person? And what role will artists and arts educators take in helping our community make sense of the situations and choices we are facing? There’s lots to think about and sort through – what are you thinking?

Then and Now

Is it nastier now than it was in the ‘60s? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It was pretty nasty then. There were threats and bombs, night sticks and lynching, angry rhetoric in response to horrible behavior – and activism that emerged, heroes and martyrs, and passion.

There are differences, of course, among which are:

  • The media, and the fast pace at which information is shared. The media analysts dissect situations before they occur, they not only report the news but create it. Everything in the world is reported, and memory is sometimes only a sound byte long. Getting a sustained effort going requires some organization, planning, a slick messages and deep and ongoing intention.
  • Another difference is the adoration/celebration of empty, pretty heads and bodies. Often the voices that are sought don’t have a sufficient knowledge base, meaningful perspectives, or the necessary analytical and political skills to move anyone anywhere. It’s not that there’s a lack of talent, it’s just whether the talented have the passion for social justice, the capacity to muster passion in others, and the bandwidth to be heard.
  • A third difference is the amount of gratuitous violence, beginning early in young children’s lives. Starting with cartoons, then sitcoms, and in the media, toys, plays, movies, and games – the collective trauma eventually desensitizes individuals, and clouds the difference between fantasy violence and real actions.

This week there have been protests sparked by events in Missouri and New York. Change is hard, but it’s even harder to ignore the tensions that beg for change when they become so present through community action that sparks media attention.

In my daily interactions, my experiences illustrate a disjunct between the real world and education. Educational decision makers are not very nimble at creating new and responsive scenarios as the world quickly changes. Of course, there are enduring understandings and skills that transcend the moment. But there are also new perspectives, needs, processes and technologies that can change the equation and make some learning strategies (and even content) obsolete. At the very least, we need to keep an eye on what children will need to succeed in life, and what our society needs our children to know and be able to do for our country to remain innovative, imaginative, and on the cutting edge of progress. It’s time to address the myopic focus on one skill or another at the expense of bring up whole thinkers. Teachers are continually being asked to focus on the one skill in which children did least well, while setting aside other important skills. Specific knowledge will be sought at the right time if our kids know how to craft and solve problems together.

The Opportunity

As an eternal optimist, this is a difficult time. However, when our world appears to break and tear, it also makes space to act, an opportunity to better ourselves, a chance to make a difference. Just like Peter, Paul and Mary, and Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, the Weavers, Country Joe and the Fish, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and so many others. You can add your favorites.

Where are the artists today who will lead and support change? They’re gathering their collective energy. Pete Seeger is gone. Mary Travers is gone. Peter and Paul, Richie Havens, Tom Waite – they’re old. And they already guided one social revolution. This new one can build on their shoulders. But I’m looking for the new leaders and what actions they will take. How will they move the culture to action? How will they step out of the boxes of more traditional organizations, and find the kind of new we need?

I think we’re getting there. It’s going to be a great time to be alive, if you’re willing to live it, share it, and mentor fledgling efforts! Sing the songs. If they don’t suit you, write new ones! Make the art. Collect and tell the stories. Dance the dances together. Feel the feelings. Act the role of rebel – of peacemaker – of social activist – of teacher. After all, isn’t this all about what is taught? And isn’t it the artists who, in generation after generation, lead?

Here are some thinkers, performers, performances, and ideas that I’ve experienced and think might be models or philosophies to base a lasting, connected response upon, and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

There are voices emerging out there. Change is a continuum, and we can put a marker on the current time, but it comes from somewhere, and is on its way to the new. If the new is going to represent democracy and imagination, it will be led by artists across all the arts. And arts educators will seek out those with powerful voices and positive but insightful messages. I’ve only started this list and discussion! Please suggest additions, including your own work and that of valued colleagues and other extraordinary arts-based professionals. Think big and fantastically, as well as practically and personally. If we think and act together, we can continue the honored tradition of the arts and artists leading change for the better! And we might even bring educators along!