The vividness - and, for that matter, the precision - of one's childhood experiences is more often than not the arbitrarily warped reflection of what really happened at a given moment. We unconsciously edit the past to make it easier to live with. Vainglory becomes glory. Shame becomes inadvertence.
Still, there are certain recollections that stand out in such starlingly sharp relief over the years that you're sure you've still got the details right. One such memory, in which I have complete confidence even though it is about 30 years old, was triggered recently while trudging through the 333 reighty, windy pages of "Coming to Our Senses," a foundation-financed study arguing that our society has suffered historically from an imbalance in which nonliterary arts are regarded as "frills" and which has, as a result, prevented the arts from playing their proper roles in "everyday living" and as "legitimate parts of the educational system."
I was a little boy of about 10 and was attending the 4th grade in a quiet little Texas town. At our school, the kind of cultural imbalance outlined by the report could hardly have been more deeply entrenched.
We reported to music class for an hour a week. The teacher would pass out tattered song books, sit down at a battered old upright and lead us in cacophonous renditions of "old favorites" that covered about as wide a range of repertory as the difference between "Old Black Joe" and "America the Beautiful" - nice songs, but insufficient to expose the students to the immense possibilities, and consolations, of music. In fact, I don't think the room even had a record player. Music was very much a frill, and not even a very glossy one at that.
These conditions weren't that much of a problem because, to my everlasting gratitude, my family compensated for it privately. My mother, my god-mother and a neighbor got me to the opera, and to the museums and at 10 to my first symphony concert (the soloist was Arthur Rubinstein and the conductor, Antal Dorati, no less). There were piano lessons and even violin lessons, until the futility of the latter course was realized.
Many of my neighborhood friends looked upon me as a little strang, because I spent more time at the keyboard than on the pitching mound. And the breadth of this gap hit me by surprise one day when, in the blunt way with which children will wreak havoc with each others' sensibilities, my 4th grade colleague, a nice fellow named Danny, casually blurted "You don't really like that music on those records you play all the time, do you?" I was thunderstruck. In one unintentionally sharp remark, Danny had forced me to recognize that I was the only kid in our circle who was developing a taste for the arts. From then on I always stored away the records when Danny and the others were around for fear that someone would make fun of this solitary pursuit, unanimously regarded among my peers as a little abnormal.
It took college, and lots of music courses with other students who were just as hooked on the subject as I to overcome this self-consciousness, and to realize that classical music seemed strange and uncommunicative to Danny and the others only because they had never had a chance to get to know it.
But I was luckier than they were - and think how much greater my luck. By leaving the performing arts at the bottom rung of the American educational ladder - by leaving it to luck - our society is actually weighted against them.
Millions of children read "Julius Caesar" and "Macbeth" in order to earn their diplomas - and in the process find out if Shakespeare is their bag. But because it's not part of the standard curriculum, most of those millions never have a chance to find out if, say, Beethoven's "Erocia" Symphony is for them. That is the crux of the ponderous report and that is why the report deserves attention, despite its many superfluous recommendations and hysterical rhetoric.
Is this objective pie-in-the-sky? Some of the specific proposals most certainly are. But is the overall objective any more unrealistic than putting together a nationwide network of public libraries turned out to be several generations ago? "Audacious," some must have said then, but, in a few years, it was done.
The most consistently sound of the plethora of proposals in these 330 pages are for the local level, particularly those on reorienting the teacher. The successful pilot projects on arts education show, once again, that the most important single element in quality education is the imaginative teacher or administrator. A striking example came in Utica, N.Y., where the schools set out in the early 1970s to elevate the arts to a rightful place in the curriculum - from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Utica inaugurated a massive program of teacher retraining. They were encouraged to experiment with their own individual programs - like one teacher's lst grade course on the weather, as taught with language arts, history, music, social studies and math. Another teacher's program on Impressionism mixed music, art, social studies and English. Filmmakers and poets served as artists-residence, and workshops were established on advanced use of the media in teaching. Utica's pilot program ended two years ago, and the arts programs remain planted firmly in the curriculum.
Even in the most committed schools, an arts initiative faces formidible hurdles. Money is dear. Some teachers resist, partly because arts instruction is facilitated by habit-breaking advanced techniques like open classrooms and team teaching. Some teachers' organizations may be troubled because artists-in-residence lack teaching certificates, and are, in effect, taking jobs from their members. And the teacher retraining program presumed by such schemes comes at a time when, because of declining enrollment, an estimated 80 per cent of the persons who will be teaching 10 years from now are already in the classrooms. New blood cannot be relied on to bring new methods.
The report's recommendation's for intensive federal involvement give real pause - partly because yet another complex federal bureaucracy would be born (by my count five new branches of the federal tree are proposed) and also because the federal treasury faces the massive new expenditures for needs that carry even higher national priorities - like social security reform, national health insurance and welfare reform. Perhaps Washington's proper role is not to control, but to support, with pilot money and guidelines.
Giving the arts their due in our schools will be difficult, and the execution is likely to be spotty at best, but this cumbersome tome "Coming to Our Senses" will have been well worth the work that went into it - and the work that goes into reading it - if it helps eventually turn around an educational policy that systematically excludes a majority of students from exposure to a fundamental part of their cultural heritage.