They're killing culture for a meaningless test


THIS SEMESTER, I teach a bright, charming, talented young woman named Kate Devlin who, as I write this, is deciding how to spend the $60,000 in college scholarships she's won for excellence in the fine arts.

I'm also privileged to know Annapolis High's Robin Dudley, a fine violinist who fiddles in the Chesapeake Youth Symphony and was recently awarded a four-year tuition waiver by Towson State University, valued in excess of $24,000. (She passed up a similar deal at West Virginia University to remain in state, by the way.)

And how is Anne Arundel County's Board of Education planning to show its support for the programs that nurtured these talents? It proposes to gut them.

In fact, if the Middle School Task Force empaneled currently by our Board of Education gets its way, middle school electives in the arts will go the way of the dinosaur, the hula-hoop and the orderly classroom.

No more sixth- and seventh-grade art classes. Classroom music disappears. Instrumental music will survive, but choral programs will teeter on the brink of extinction.

Maybe 30 people in the whole world walked out of "Mr. Holland's Opus" thinking Richard Dreyfuss deserved to be fired, and they all work at 2644 Riva Road.

Why this drastic reduction in arts electives? No, it's not the budget. Turns out it's the all-powerful, all-sacred, all-important Maryland School Performance Assessment Program scores. Some of our eighth-graders don't do well enough on them, you see, so our local bureaucrats are anticipating the heat of state Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's evil eye bearing down on them. Poof, there go music and art for middle schoolers.

I think this is shameful.

First, I am morally opposed to tails that wag dogs.

MSPAP is an artificial construct that's been superimposed across our schools to give one bunch of bureaucrats control over another. It has yet to hold one single Maryland elementary or middle schooler responsible for knowing anything. An astronomically high MSPAP score will not get you into college. It will not earn you a nano-second's worth of advanced placement credit hours, nor plop anything green in your pocket come college tuition crunch time.

In the world outside Nancy Grasmick's office, in short, MSPAP is meaningless. Yet the vast, Stalinesque bureaucracy it has spawned now controls everything. Originally conceived of as a means to an end, the program has become an end in itself.

As a result, our local paper pushers are ready to lay waste to the instructional landscape merely to prostrate themselves before the desk jockeys who hold sway over them. My bright, creative daughter Joann, who would rather sing, dance, quilt and make candles than eat, loses her art and music classes so Anne Arundel County can show the state bureaucracy how much it cares. There's more than a touch of willful denial here. The edhocracy would have us believe that time devoted to the study of music and art compromises efforts to improve literacy in our middle schools.

Who are they kidding? These are the folks who have criminalized the teaching of grammar to young people. Middle schoolers must spend day after day nattering away in small groups, stealing each other's answers left and right, because "cooperative learning" has been enshrined as the new reformist mantra.

Want scores to rise? Restore academic sanity, reinstitute an individualized work ethic and weed out middle school administrators too timid or too far gone ideologically to crack the disciplinary whip. I hate to see music and art made the scapegoat for our sins because, in truth, they enhance academic success, not hinder it.

By the state's own numbers, for crying out loud, it's clear that kids should be more involved in the arts, not less!

But when I say "involved in the arts," I'm not talking about selling candy and making general nuisances of ourselves as we finance our jaunts to "music festivals" at Disney World, Hersheypark and points in between. The arts should be defining the academic and cultural parameters of school life, not distracting us from the academic business at hand. Musical tails shouldn't be wagging dogs either.

The saddest thing, though, is that everything bad about American popular culture seems to be converging on young minds these days. From sociopathic films to the thuggish brutality of rap music, to unsupervised afternoons with Jerry Springer's endless parade of narcissistic nitwits, kids are bombarded with anti-cultural influences from all sides.

Schools must be the antidote. Education, at its best, nourishes not only the mind, but the soul. To jettison the pursuit of beauty, sophistication and disciplined expression in the name of "literacy" is to create a non-sequitur of epic proportions.

"Education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it," wrote Plato in his "Republic."

Amen. For when all is said and done, a delicate brush stroke and an in-tune C major scale embody more majesty, more intellectual rigor and more sustenance for the soul than all the "prompts," "rubrics" and other bits of pedagogical twaddle our arid, overpriced test-makers could design in a thousand years.

May letters fly and switchboards flood. Leave the arts alone!

The writer is a high school teacher in Annapolis and an arts critic for The Sun for Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 5/12/96

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