Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ah But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now

Good morning
“And the beat goes on……………………”

 èNote: Next Week begins a Four Part Intensive Dialogue and Discussion on Arts Education and the whole range of attendant issues -hosted by myself and Julie Fry from the Hewlett Foundation - featuring 30+ leaders from across the field. I believe this will be a very important forum and exchange of ideas and hope you will follow along over the course of the next month. The conversations among the participants will be along these four broad categories (one per week – with subtopics and specific questions): Practice, Field Building, Policy and Research.

We plan to talk about everything –
· from the ‘direct arts instruction’ vs. ‘arts integration’ as a strategy debate, to the role of artists, arts organizations and higher academia in the ecosystem for the provision of arts education;

· from an analysis of what we are and are not doing (and might do) to help parents and the public understand the value of arts education, to addressing the various barriers beyond budget shortfalls including lack of equity and access, high turnover in arts education leadership, the need for relevant assessment and accountability, and the status of innovation in our efforts;

· from the efforts to develop a comprehensive national policy on arts education to the problems of effective arts education advocacy and the great wall of budget cuts;

· from the recent President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities Report on Arts Education recommendations to where we stand on the development of credible research in support of the proposition that the arts do indeed teach the very skills supposedly wanted in the new global market place.

We hope this forum will explore a wide range of the issues that must be addressed to move arts education forward, and in the process kickstart more attention on September as National Arts Education Month. We also hope this forum will help to frame some of those issues and future discussion at both the Arts Education Partnership (September) and the Grantmakers in the Arts (October) conferences – both in San Francisco this year.

On another note -- thank you for all of the positive response on the interview with Bill Cleveland. It is gratifying to know that there is a large appetite out there for drilling deeper into more meaty subjects. And I would like to remind you that if you have a comment you would be willing to share, rather than email me, please click on the comment icon at the end of the current blog and enter it in the box.

The Cycles of Life and the Arts in Keeping Us Young

Bob Dylan wrote of the phenomenon of how points at certain of the times of our lives affect the way we see things. In one of my favorite of his poems (songs –but I always thought of him as the Poet Laureate of my generation) - “My Back Pages – Dylan lamented the conceit that in the fiery brand period of our college age youth, we knew it all. The great moral questions of life were black and white to us at that juncture in our lives – and we knew, just knew, what was right, what was wrong - about virtually everything in the world. Having moral certitude on your side allows for huge leaps of faith in coming to conclusions and we suffered no shortage of confidence in the rightness of our beliefs (Boomers have always been sure of themselves, indeed sometimes “too” sure perhaps).

At some point early on you lose the childhood innocence and wonder and confusion – the magical place where being sure of something isn’t all that important - and you become dogmatic and intractable, and even smug in your outlook. The arrogance of youth knows no generational exclusivity – it rears its head every generation. It may simply be part of growing up.

Dylan wrote of that stance eloquently. (and if you’ve never heard Dylan’s or the Byrd’s version, you really should download it and hear the lyrics sung). Listen:

My Back Pages

“Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.”

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

And then over time (hopefully, but sadly not true with everyone) you enter another phase where it dawns on you that the world isn’t so black and white, and things are more gray, and there are no easy answers – if indeed there are any answers at all. When you’re young you have the luxury of being right all the time. As you grow older, your obligations, your commitments along with your dreams and aspirations all get tempered by changing perspectives. Ideally, you realize this happening, and you see that in your haste and hurry to grow up and take your rightful place as a ‘decision maker’ in life, anxious for the time you can right the wrongs of the world, you forsook and relinquished an extraordinarily valuable gift – that profound knowledge and understanding of things that comes only with innocence and naivety. An involuntary exit from Paradise and the Garden of Eden.

And that cycle seems to continue across the plain of one’s life. As you get much older, you yearn to return to again being younger than that now. You seek conscious ways to try to shed the yoke of the years on your psyche, get beyond that which “deceived you into thinking you had something to protect” and again bathe in the serenity of not being so sure, not being so smart anymore. At some point, you come to know that there is a danger in becoming the very thing against which you so railed – at least for so long as you cling to the lie that you know all the answers. And isn’t that much of what is wrong with the world today - that far too many decision makers (and everyday people) remain older than that now – mired in their prisons of the dedication to absolutes?

While the world demands that we question all the old assumptions, challenge the current ways of action, and re-invent much of the way we approach everything, resistance is fierce and people cling to the perceived safety in the sanctity of change refusal. Still, if we are smart, we will at least accept, if not embrace, change.

I think sometimes that we in the nonprofit arts sector would be wise to make some effort to be a little younger than that now too; to shed some of our dogmatic, hard and fast conclusions about who we are, what we are doing, and how we approach it all. I’m not talking about the proverbial “out-of-the-box thinking we all so champion, but rather just the everyday approach we take to what we know or don’t know. I’m not so sure we know as much as we claim we know. I hope we can be at the vanguard of “younger than that now” thinking and not just play catch-up to the real thought leaders of the future. Someone once said that the way to have a good idea, is to have lots of ideas. And you can more likely have lots of ideas if you are open to your own thinking being biased and perhaps not as well founded as you may think.

I have come to the conclusion that the arts are one of the threads in our lives that not only allow us the true luxury of being – from time to time – “younger than that now”, but which actually propel us away from the dangerous trap of keeping us “so much older then.” The arts are, for our psyches and mental health, like the anti-oxidants that track down and destroy the free radicals that roam our bodies destroying cells; the very force that can keep us young in thought by challenging our beliefs. I suspect that over the next 50 years there will be verifiable research collaborating the thesis that the arts play a significant role in keeping us young – physically and mentally.  A daily dose of the arts may be as good for you as the daily handful of vitamin supplements.

I went and saw a retrospective Picasso exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco last week. I need to do more of that. It wasn’t the crème de la crème of all his work, but it was a fabulous retrospective and the two hours spent there were sublimely enjoyable, beautifully stimulating and made for a standout day. [And, on the positive side – at least for blockbuster museum exhibitions – the place (on a Thursday mid day) was jam packed.] Picasso, it seemed to me, was able most of his days to look at life as someone perennially “younger than that now”. Refusing to ever get pigeon-holed into any single style, he seemed not to succumb to knowing all the answers to anything, but rather remained enthralled by the questions and the possibilities. He lived a rich and long life. Isn’t that the goal?

Of course, almost no one can be a Picasso. But then you can’t define “good and bad quite clear, no doubt, somehow” forever. And perhaps we can all be “younger than that now.” Easier to do that if the arts are a part of your life.

Have a great week. And please pass the word about next week’s start of the Arts Education Forum.

Don’t Quit