THE BATTLE OF IDEAS
Candidate: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee Proposal: Focus on Arts and Music Education
As former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee goes about pursuing conservative voters in the GOP presidential primary, he is wielding a plank that would warm the hearts of many a liberal mom in Cambridge, Mass.: the need for music and arts education.
To hear Huckabee tell it, expanding arts and music instruction is not only a cure-all for much that ails America's schools, but also key to keeping the country competitive. The economy of the future, he says, will place a premium on creativity, and even scientists and engineers will need to be able to be inventive, in addition to knowing the periodic table of elements.
"I call it a weapon of mass instruction. It's a critical part of education," Huckabee said during a visit to Northern Virginia last weekend. "A lot of education today has become left-brain only. All we're doing is . . . nothing more than data download: taking data from the teacher and downloading it to kids. And we wonder why 6,000 kids drop out of school every day and why so many millions more kids sleep through the day with their heads down on the desk, taking the most expensive nap in America. The reason they're doing it is not that they're dumb but that they're bored."
He added: "If you don't stimulate both sides of a human's brain, you're simply generating half the capacity. This whole idea that music and art are great programs if you can afford them and have room for them -- that's utter nonsense. It's the stupidest thing we've done to education in the last two generations."
Huckabee, a former minister, speaks from personal interest: His parents bought him a $99 guitar when he was 11 years old, and he's played ever since, eventually becoming the bassist for a Little Rock band, Capitol Offense, that has played with Grand Funk Railroad, Willie Nelson and REO Speedwagon, among others. As governor, he pushed through a 2005 law requiring elementary schools to offer 40 minutes per week of music and art and requiring high school students to take at least a half-year of art, music or dance to graduate.
He is not proposing similar requirements at the federal level, saying he believes that despite President Bush's No Child Left Behind effort, education should remain mostly a state and local matter. But he says that he would "use the bully pulpit to show the benefits of enhanced music and arts programs for every single kid in America."
As appealing as such a notion might sound to some, it puts Huckabee in the midst of a raging debate over how the country should spend its limited education resources and how students should spend their hours in school. Many teachers and parents have expressed concern that arts and music are being pushed to the side as No Child Left Behind presses schools to focus on math and reading basics to meet testing standards. At the same time, Congress recently passed a bill, the America Competes Act, that would substantially increase funding for science, technology, engineering and math instruction (the "STEM" subjects). Employers and professional groups are praising the measure, but others worry it will further tip the scale away from the arts and humanities.
As Huckabee sees it, it's not a matter of either/or -- he notes that some college engineering departments have started seeking out musicians, figuring they are more likely to excel in the field. "That's where we're going to come up with . . . an alternative energy solution, or with new ways for everything from food production to curing cancer and diabetes," he said. "It's having a creative generation that doesn't think in the limited realm of the knowledge they've been given in the download."
-- Alec MacGillis