New gold standard: cultural capital

I've always liked Italian currency - or, rather, the artwork on Italian currency, now replaced by the euro. While the 1,000 lire note might not have been worth enough to buy a double cappuccino or piccolo gelato, it did bear a beautifully etched portrait of educator Maria Montessori.

How many countries put a kindergarten teacher on their money? How many societies would be better off if they did? When money changes hands, it is a chance, evidently, to traffic in more kinds of value than mere monetary exchange rates. A beautiful bank note can remind you of something greater than money.

I thought of this when I saw a recent issue of The New Yorker. On the cover, artist Ray Palma has replaced Alexander Hamilton with Ray Charles on the $10 bill. The title: "In Ray We Trust." Uh-huh.

OK, it's meant to be humorous, or perhaps slightly political, given the background noise about which denomination of our legal tender ex-President Reagan should appear on.

But why not put Ray on the ten-spot? Ray makes you feel good. Is there a mood or occasion that isn't covered by a Ray Charles song? Ray Charles transcended musical categories and inspired countless musicians, from pop crooners to hip-hoppers. And he transcended poverty, blindness, and racism in order to succeed.

Ray sang with raucousness or reverence, sincerity or slyness. If for nothing else, we owe Ray a debt of gratitude for his rendition of "America the Beautiful." He helped us see ourselves as we hope to be.

Aside from the image on the bill, currency speaks to what we've got in the bank, what's backing up the face value. We want to believe not only that the values behind our economic system are sound, but that the values behind our cultural system are sound. It's another kind of solvency. So, would financial markets collapse or interest rates plummet if we really did put artistic worthies right up front on the money? Call it a new gold standard, or cultural capital. With Ray on the tenner, I'd smile every time I paid my tab.

Who else belongs on our money? Branch out a little more: painters, singers, dancers, writers, architects, farmers, psychologists. Show me the money with a Woody Guthrie two bits; the Aaron Copland fiver; the Langston Hughes twenty. How about Duke Ellington for the C-note?

America, too, has a rich tradition in education, to return to the Montessori theme. I'd say Fred Rogers is our country's Montessori. His television visits may not have had the gravitas of the founders of our republic, but he tapped an authentic, soulful voice that gave many children and their parents comfort and courage. "I like you just the way you are," he told us. I'd like to come from a country that wasn't afraid to put a symbol of such elegantly simple neighborliness on the face of its money.

"That's the right one, baby," as Ray would say.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine, Maine.

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