The 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus ends with the defunding of the music department at the John F. Kennedy High School. After almost two hours of film demonstrating how the fine arts changed the lives of students, the story builds to a crescendo of unanticipated tragedy. Yet this is the story played over many times across the nation as school boards seek ways to implement painful budget cuts. The message of Mr. Holland, however, is clear: the value of music and the fine arts is indispensable to a superb education and should be an equal partner in every high school curriculum.
The Fine Arts Impact Students Seeking Creative Outlets
Historically, art and music have always been highly valued as necessary characteristics of society and culture. The Roman Emperor Nero, for example, is often depicted as a psychotic beast, yet his poetry and other artistic ventures demonstrate a higher level of human understanding and creativity.
Not every high school student aspires to be a science or math major. Some students are not drawn to athletics, although high school sports frequently receive the most school coverage as well as a sizable portion of the school budget.
Many highly creative students gravitate to the arts, participating in school drama productions, choruses, and orchestras. These students gain peer acceptance and self-confidence by participating in creative activities. Although the so-called “drama kids” are often marginalized in the school community, they provide a necessary balance within the curriculum while achieving a sense of personal worth and equality.
To What Extent Does Society Value the Arts
What is happening in high schools parallels trends within contemporary American society. Sunday night football is far more popular than a concert or opera hosted on a public broadcast service channel. In North Carolina, for example, the NC School of the Arts, part of the state university system, may eliminate the School of Filmmaking to comply with a ten percent cut in state funds (Winston Salem Journal, November 23, 2010).
In the spring of 2010, citizens of Cobb County, Georgia were concerned when the school system sought to trim the educational budget by cutting arts education from the curriculum (Marietta Daily Journal, April 14, 2010). The “Fine Arts” represent art, music, and literature, notably poetry. Societies and repressive governmental regimes that attempted to limit national cultural and artistic expression deprived their citizens of wholeness necessary in any civilized society. This included the Nazis and the Soviets.
Cutting Specific Programs from the High School Curriculum
Given the weak public support for fine arts education in the public schools, it is easy to target drama, music, and other creative programs. A better solution would be to spread budgetary cuts evenly across the curriculum, including high school sports.
Fine arts education spans the curriculum, reinforcing English and history education. Like geography, most high school graduates have no knowledge of either music or art, unless it involves the pop culture.
How many college freshmen, sitting in Western Civilization survey classes, have never heard of Ludwig Van Beethoven or know that he dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon Bonaparte?
Most students arriving at college cannot even define the term “symphony.” They may know rudimentary facts about the Renaissance, but cannot comment on the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s frescoes, or Giotto’s humanistic conceptualizations of the Last Supper. The only music education these students may have had was from watching Amadeus.
The National Culture and American History
Because of budget limitations, high school students know nothing of American music, poetry, or art. Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein are as foreign to them as Corelli and Purcell of the European Middle Ages. American history teachers cannot be expected to incorporate fine arts into the curriculum; that task must be accomplished by a strong Fine Arts department.
Students are the Ultimate Concern of Parents and Educators
The proverbial “bottom line” in arts and music education involves students. Does a high school diploma really reflect top quality, broad educational achievement? Does it imply four years of intramural sports and club activities, or does it include knowledge of national culture? The “drama kids” may not all go on to Broadway stardom. But their participation in arts and music contributes to significant character development.
Eliminating the fine arts in public schools as a means to save money condemns future generations to a culture that has no roots. School systems that defund such programs help to assassinate the very foundations that give meaning to human existence. Examples of the earliest pre-historic artifacts used by historians are primitive cave drawings found in North Africa and Southern Europe.
Historically successful societies valued the arts. After the ending of the Greek “dark ages,” Greek drama resulted in superb plays still studied today. This was also the golden age of sculpture. The arts enabled mankind to transcend the everyday life in order to connect with a force more powerful and pure. If this message is not in the curriculum of American schools, the future will be as bright as Orwell’s 1984.
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