Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Banning Picasso at the Lapin Agile, part 14...accomodating Art

About twenty ears ago I received a telephone call from a parent of one of my freshman students at La Grande High School. The man was a pastor at a local church, and he had called to tell me that he objected to his son having to read materials in class that promoted paganism. The work in question was the Greek epic "The Odyssey" . Our discussion was fairly wide ranging and even interesting, however, the resolution was fairly narrow and straightforward.

I informed him that the work in question was a keystone in the traditional canon of Western Literature and that under no circumstances was I going to allow a student out of my freshman English class without him having studied this work. I was younger then and possessed with a kind missionary feeling for literature, but the times were different too.

I live and work today in an educational culture that holds dear the idea of accommodations. Nowadays, it is quite likely that confronted with a similar parent I might be tempted if not mandated to accommodate his child with some sort of alternative assignment. For the record, I have never received another complaint about Homer's works. Teachers have been conditioned over the last decade or so to inoculate themselves against such complaints by furnishing students in advance with alternatives. A child can watch a film, say on the French Revolution which might offer some fairly graphic images of scenes involving guillotines or that child might opt to research the topic in the library while his mates view the film.

We try to accommodate all sorts of people for a variety of reasons. The home schoolers who want their children to have access to lab sciences or music offerings at the public school. Kids with special needs who require extra time and/or support in order to complete assigned work. ESL students. We even accommodate folks who are skittish about evolution and we take care to underline the word and the idea of theory whenever we speak of it in the classroom. The spirit of accommodation is generous, flexible, and taxing. At it's worst it lacks rigor and is merely a servile response to criticism; at its best it enriches and enlarges the scope of a subject or endeavor . We do it because we believe that the differences that exist amongst people are real and they merit consideration.

So why don't we accommodate those people for whom art is one of their primary means of both inquiry and expression? Why don't we recognize that there are kids and community members (many more than some folks imagine by the way) who would place art very near the top of their list of educational values and very near the center of their lives?

It seems hubristic for one group of people to dictate a narrow and more or less denuded range of artistic expression to students who are capable of, and who in fact need, more. We don't say to our students "Algebra II is as high or as far as you need to go in Math. Don't trouble yourself with the more esoteric material of Calculus and beyond." We don't say to them, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is fine. There's no need for you wrestle with the likes of "Dostoevsky or Hemingway or Kate Chopin." We don't say to student athletes, "You're good enough, don't waste your time trying to be a Michael Jordan."

Yet when it comes to theater arts, we send exactly these kinds of messages when we censor their efforts. We tell them: avoid controversy, don't stretch yourself, don't aspire to something beyond the norm. People who don't love the theater don't realize perhaps how constraining and how patronizing these messages are.

Whatever the case, there is a principle that needs to applied here in the same way that it is applied elsewhere. It is the principle of accommodation. The students, the parents, the community members who value highly the theater arts in its fullest and widest expression, these people exist. Their needs and aspirations are legitimate. They are taxpayers and community members too. They deserve to be served by the public schools. Their message is simple: accommodate us; accommodate art.


Blogger Kevin said...

Wasn't it Voltaire who said, "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death (preferably your death) my right to keep you from saying it -- especially in front of the children -- and can't you remember how easily the horses are spooked?"

Naw, couldn't have been Voltaire -- wasn't he a nasty little atheist, who smelled like a Frenchman -- maybe he even was a Frenchman? -- he couldn't have said something that smacks so much of real, honest-to-God Americanism.

I am forwarding a link to this beautiful blog post to everyone I can think of who needs to be reminded that there is intelligent life in this country -- this post, and Steve Martin's letter, with lines under the lovely sentence, "Pablo Picasso, as a historical figure, does not come gift-wrapped for the sensitive."

11:36 PM  

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