"Something Special," a film which the Alliance for Arts Education made to convince school officials and parents that art in the schools is not a dispensable frill, opens in a Safeway parking lot.
There is the Great American Consumer we all know from television advertisements - a mother who has just had a big dose of realism (played by the bag of expensive groceries she clutches) and is prepared to offer some mild cynicism before being won over by an irresistible argument proving the worth of an additional product (in this case, art).
"I already have a refrigerator covered with Halloween pumpkins and Thanksgiving turkeys," she said, adding that she does not expect her children to become artists and wants them to concentrate on skills they can use.
We do not see her at the end of the film, to find out whether she has been overwhelmed by the footage of children playing instruments, dancing, drawing and acting. But it seems possible that the Alliance - a joint venture of the Kennedy Center and the U.S. Office of Education at HEW - will merely confirm her prejudice when this film is shown to school boards and parent-teacher associations in the 50 states.
The children's projects, filmed in Colorado schools by Oak Creek Films of Denver, are indeed impressive. But the conclusions drawn from them by educators interviewed in the film are likely to antagonize their audience by attempting to sell art as a form of therapy.
As a District school official put it, "People are frightened silly because their kids can't read," and see arts education as an expensive extra which detracts from the teaching of basics.
Why teach the arts?
According to the adults in the film, the answer is to teach children to "have more meaningful experiences . . . find out who they are . . . get over their hang-ups . . . feel comfortable . . . loosen up . . . achieve a positive self-concept . . . feel good about himself . . . show you a part of yourself you don't normally see."
It is an answer which may not satisfy people who feel that they have tried an educational system designed to produce happiness and that it not only didn't work, but failed to teach learning skills.
A more persuasive answer might have been to show the work that those children had to do in order to play an instrument, dance or draw at the level they do in this film.
The young dancers, musicians and artists must have put some discipline and hard work into learning their art. In some cases, children who had academic troubles might have learned skills through the arts that they couldn't learn in class.
And in all cases, the "happiness" produced in the children would be shown to be not the magic touch of something unserious, but the reward of hard labor.
No consumer could object to that as a legitimate technique of education.