The Beauty of Conviction

CARRYING power in public discourse depends on the integrity of the ideas expressed. Some days ago the conductor of the Boston orchestra said, during a radio fund-raising effort, that revelations in one's musical life tend to come during live concerts, rather than when listening to recordings.

When a senior in college, I heard the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bj"orling sing in Symphony Hall. My voice teacher had been explaining that a true tone, a perfectly shaped tone, whether loud or quiet, would fill a concert hall; but an imperfectly shaped tone, no matter how loudly sung, will be warped and will fail to carry. This was tough to grasp. But when Bj"orling began to sing, I understood. From the opening line of a Handel aria to his encore, Foster's ``Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair'' - the phrase ``floating like a zephyr'' whispered - every note reached me with absolute clarity, even though I was sitting in the last row of the first balcony. This was a musical revelation. Further, I had arrived at the concert ill with the flu; by its finish I was well - which shows that balm for the soul can heal the body too.

This principle of integrity in public performance, freedom from the misshaping force of human will, is crucial to leading a nation. It was not honored at last week's ``education summit'' in Charlottesville, Va.

Bypassing the heart, President Bush went straight to the pocketbook: ``To those who say that money alone is the answer, I say that there is no one answer. If anything, hard experience teaches that we are simply not getting our money's worth in education. Our focus must no longer be on resources. It must be on results.''

Charlottesville was an establishment assembly. The president met with the governors in a display of the constitutional pecking order. ``I think one of the reasons that we're all so excited about the results of the last two days is that the report addresses the financial role of the federal government in education, albeit in a limited role, but an extremely important role,'' enthused Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington.

We've seen enough of these faked political events during recent campaigns; why suffer them for governance? The patriotic bunting. The friendly crowds to applaud on cue - crowds purportedly representing the people.

The rhetoric lacked the beauty, the carrying power of conviction. How depressing for an official to give 100 speeches a year, none of them memorable.

Contrast Charlottesville, with all of America's top elected executives assembled, and Martin Luther King's Lincoln Memorial address of Aug. 28, 1963. King did not hold the high ground, the elected establishment's perch. He spoke from the people's plain below: ``I have a dream that one day down in Alabama - with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification - one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers....''

We all know those lines. King's speech was a revelation of a nation's mission. The crowd was not screened and cued. But it responded to his final plea to ``join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: `Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'''

People's assemblies are beginning to form over education. Last week, Utah's 17,000 teachers staged a one-day walkout to protest an attempt to absorb their $2 million education surplus into general revenues. Utah's legislators were shamed into reversal. In Massachusetts this past Monday, teachers and citizens held a ``day of conscience'' to protest funding cuts - 700 faculty positions at state campuses and the end of art, music, computer, and debate classes at lower public school levels.

America has had great education presidents: Washington a man of principle; Jefferson a renaissance genius; Lincoln studying by hearthlight.

In America, education has to do with freedom. Post-schoolers and not just preschoolers and schoolers need education now more than ever. Freedom from boredom. Freedom from criminal neighborhoods. Freedom from selfish aspirations. Freedom from spiritual illiteracy. What do you say about a nation where the shopping mall denotes the cultural norm?

Given the past week's events, if there is to be an American education-reform movement it will likely be led from the foot of the hill, from outside government, by an unelected spokesman for the people, gifted with the beauty of conviction.

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