NASAA Notes: May 2013


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Jonathan Katz

May issue
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May 3, 2013

The Boston Bombing and Collective Experience

Of the many works of art whose topic is the case for the value of art, one of my very favorites is a poem by A. E. Housman entitled “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” which is the opening line that quotes the opinion of his friends about his writing poetry, and specifically poetry about melancholy subjects, when he could be partying. His first response is to concede that, if one’s interest is to see the world as just, then “malt does more than Milton can,” but this kind of escapism is “to see the world as the world’s not.” He recounts his attempts to drink himself into a state where “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad,” but that strategy has improved neither him nor the world:

. . . the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

The world, to Terence, “has still / Much good, but much less good than ill. . . .” As he sees it, faith is just another kind of escapism: “pleasant till ’tis past: / The mischief is that ’twill not last.” He chooses to face the world realistically, “as a wise man would, / And train for ill and not for good.” Housman ends the poem with the following story:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.

I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Terence—Housman—in response to the criticism of friends for writing his poems, offers artistic experience as a means of preparing to engage with the real dangers of the world, even those that we cannot justify, even those that appear to us as evil, even as we explore our own inadequacies, even as we acknowledge our inclinations to turn and run.

We have all participated in late-night discussions about what defines human nature, what differentiates us from other living things. Certainly, one essentially human attribute is the ability to hypothesize, to engage in symbolic discourse, to learn from what has been experienced in our individual life, by others and from what we can imagine taking place. This ability is rooted in how effectively we learn to use language, which includes images, movements, words and numbers.

The Boston Marathon bombing last month is much in the minds of everyone. Now that those responsible have been identified and the suspects no longer pose a danger, the question that commands our attention is, What have we learned and how do we, as a society committed to individual freedoms, prepare, both to prevent and to respond to, the violent actions that exist as a choice for all of us?

Americans and people all over the world will ask themselves what dissenting behavior is appropriate and justified by what they perceive as unjust circumstances, decisions and authorities. Conversely, we will all ask ourselves how we ensure the public process and secure environment that protects us from disruptive and dangerous behaviors. We have, within each of us, both of these concerns. This individual dialogue and its social and political dialectic will be one that shapes the future of American democracy. In addition, we will debate the appropriate extent of public and private surveillance of individual citizens, the comparative usefulness of civic and military legal procedures, the availability of destructive how-tos on the Internet, the early identification of mental instability and criminal tendencies.

If any collective experience should illuminate the insufficient nature of “college and career preparation” as the summative goals of American education, and the need for us to consider what learning prepares us to participate productively in the kind of democracy we think of as American, it is the kind of experience we shared as a people in the past couple of weeks.

In other places, I’ve argued that arts learning should be part of basic public education in a democracy because withholding the symbol system of sensory images denies maximum achievement to all students and almost any achievement to some students. I agree with playwright Wendy Wasserstein that “The arts reflect profoundly the most democratic credo, the belief in an individual vision or voice.” And I think it is undemocratic to allow so basic an educational resource as arts education to be more available to students in wealthier districts and schools than to poorer students, as is the case today in the United States.

Let’s consider for a moment how engagement with works of art helps us prepare—intellectually and emotionally—for the decisions that will define our democracy for future generations. Consider the relevance of Les Miserables and The Battle of Algiers, whose subject matter is radical insurgencies that fail in the short term and succeed in the end. Consider the roles of Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis in The Siege, which explores what the rules for interrogation of suspects should be when the object is to obtain information about the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in order to save many lives.

Consider the issues raised in 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and Minority Report, which display the consequences of societies attempting to provide general safety and stability through central control of information, individual action and freedom of expression. At the same time, these works of art note that freedoms of thought and behavior, which allow for more expression of individual desires and ambitions, can result in unhappiness, rebellion, lawlessness and violence. Antigone dramatizes a complex conflict among political power, religious authority and family ties. Julius Caesar is a tutorial on the importance of political precedent, the variety of motivations that drive political figures and the power of rhetoric to sway public opinion. Through the study of works of art, we have thousands of years of human history and expression to draw upon in our quest for political wisdom.

Certainly, the students of today will be better prepared to be tomorrow’s citizens if they have explored the methods of, the meaning of, and how they feel about the work of the visual artists who documented the Great Awakenings and Great Depression, the musicians whose playing and singing have been part of progress toward racial equality, and the writers whose novels and plays have influenced social change and the labor movement.

Housman has his poet apologize that “the stuff I bring for sale / Is not so brisk a brew as ale,” but he doesn’t back off about its value: “if the smack is sour, / The better for the embittered hour. . . .” Housman celebrates the beauty of the cherry tree and the resilience of the human heart in other poems. And in this one, he has the poet bind himself to his compatriots in one more way (besides through the gift of his art) that all societies need, no matter how small or large:

And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

My best wishes to you all for a beautiful and rejuvenating spring season.

In this Issue

State to State

Legislative Update

More Notes from NASAA

Executive Director's Column

Research on Demand




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