Our Children Inhabit a World of (Shrinking?) Possibilities


Arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life.

- George Washington, 1778

Too often, the value of participation in the arts is underestimated. The arts enrich our lives and ... are a valuable learning tool that reinforces the other disciplines like reading, writing, social studies, even science and math.

- Christine Todd Whitman Governor of New Jersey, 1995

ARTS education is under tremendous pressure. Celebrating "Arts Education Month" in the United States helps counter that pressure. For example, the "World's Largest Concert" was coordinated by the Music Educators National Conference based in Reston, Va. And the National Youth Art Month effort, marking the significance of children and art, was launched with an event in Washington. There's more to the momentum than festivity, though.

Research has begun to reveal, as Governor Whitman and others have noted, a direct cause-and-effect linkage between children's arts participation and their performance in other aspects of learning.

The politically embattled National Endowment for the Arts will soon publish a study titled, "Effects of Arts Education on Americans' Participation in the Arts." There's clear proof, says the report, that sound, responsible arts education spurs youngsters on to rich roles in the arts as they mature. The arts, it says, "[connect] people with their national culture ...."

The NEA's leadership stance in arts education is, alas, endangered. According to NEA chairwoman Jane Alexander, the agency's $99.5 million for fiscal year 1996 reflects a congressional cut of 40 percent. In the climate of Washington budget discord, the NEA, like other federal entities, expects to amble along under a continuing resolution - stopgap spending - at least until the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Those who would look to the private sector to compensate for government cuts may be surprised by a report from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities: It indicates public-private partnership giving has taken a downturn in recent years. Corporate giving to the arts is slightly up. Individual giving is down.

Meanwhile, there's the phenomenon of "Mr. Holland's Opus," a cautionary film depicting a music teacher's trials and triumphs. Variety magazine reports that, as of late February, 58,123,515 people had seen the film worldwide. As a consequence, might we witness a groundswell of local citizens willing to take a stand on behalf of children and the arts?

"Sunday in the Park with George," a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, was first staged in 1984, a more buoyant time for the arts. It's a stunning exploration of creativity and the abiding elements of the arts: "Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light.... And Harmony."

The musical closes with a profound challenge that we must hope will apply to future generations: "White. A blank page or canvas.... So many possibilities."

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