In a recent episode of NBC's underappreciated Monday series "Freaks and Geeks," one of the rebellious high-school "freaks" falls for a girl in the school band. Suddenly, it's not so geeky to like school activities or music beyond heavy metal.
The arts have always had a tough time at school. Unlike sports, they rarely bring in major revenue. The assumption is that they're expendable - a nice frosting, but hardly a necessary ingredient in the educational cake. Being able to spell and calculate trains students for the work force. Learning about Beethoven's Ninth or Ellington's " 'A' Train" might mean the student lives a richer, fuller life - but, hey, what's that got to do with earning a nickel?
Today's financial good times provide a chance to spill some of that spare cash into schools. An Associated Press story this week told of a group of movie stars and students urging Congress to do just that. They brought with them studies showing how acting, painting, or instrumental music helps children do well in other classes.
"The arts simply saved my life," said TV and film actor Hector Elizondo ("Pretty Woman," "Runaway Bride"), who grew up in Harlem. "I was lucky. There are so many folks from my neighborhood [who], if this institution [the arts] had been a fabric of their lives, they would have flourished."
A UCLA study showed that students in grades 8 to 10 who studied the arts scored better on standardized tests and were less likely to drop out of school. While nearly 5 percent of the children not involved in the arts dropped out of school by 10th grade, only 1.4 percent of the children involved in the arts did so.
"Every child deserves access to the arts. Not just the best, not just the brightest, and certainly not just those who can afford it," said Bob Morrison, executive director of "Save the Music," a school program on VH-1, the cable music network.
The advocacy groups hope to sway Congress to increase NEA funding by $50 million. The NEA, which provides matching grants to state and local arts organizations, has seen its budget shrivel from a high of about $176 million in 1992 to about $98 million today.
Last month, current NEA chairman Bill Ivey and four previous chairmen (both Republicans and Democrats) appeared together at a Harvard University symposium. Frank Hodsoll, chairman during both Reagan administrations, called the NEA "a symbol of national caring," a "strategic investment," and "not a partisan issue."
The tiny number of controversial projects that receive public funding, like the recent "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Museum of Art and its ilk, ought not to outweigh the vast majority of projects that do mainstream work. "What we've done at the arts endowment is 99.9 percent safe," said John Frohnmayer, President Bush's appointee as NEA chairman.
The AP also reported this week that states plan to spend a record $396 million this year to promote the arts, and that individual donations to the arts also have increased in recent years.
With help from all these sources, maybe a few more school bands will help a few more "freaks" find a little soul in Sousa.
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