Pleasure, beauty, and wonder

This week, the Fordham Institute issued Beyond the Basics: Achieving a Liberal Education for All Children, arising from our December 12, 2006, conference on the same topic, at which National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia--one of 18 contributors to the work--delivered a stirring talk on the role of the arts in liberal learning. (See also his commencement address to this year's Stanford graduates.) An edited transcript of that speech appears in the volume, and is excerpted here:

Our nation's capital draws tens of thousands of tourists each year, and most spend considerable time on Pennsylvania Avenue. They see some amazing structures there, but how many see more than the obvious? That street not only displays beautiful buildings, but it also presents our nation's intellectual heritage reflected in the architectural styles. 

At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue sits the U.S. Capitol, a building of Roman architecture. It reminds us of our country's roots in the Roman Republic and Athenian Democracy. Turn around, and there stands a huge Egyptian obelisk dedicated to one of the first leaders in human history who voluntarily resigned his power at its very height--George Washington. He was a new world leader who followed in the footsteps of his hero, the Roman Cincinnatus, and returned to civilian life because he knew it was more important to preserve freedom than to preserve his particular vision of freedom. Turn a bit more, peer through the trees, and there's the White House, a Georgian mansion, a reminder of our debt to England, to Common Law and individual freedom. 

From a single street corner in Washington, we can observe the legacy of Athens, Rome, Egypt, and England. We can see that America is part of an enormous human enterprise. That is, we can see this legacy, if our education allows it. If not, then all we see are famous buildings. Likewise the ability of our children and grandchildren fully to appreciate American society, and fully to engage in it, depends on education. 

Today there are two closely related visions of American education in practice. One aims to produce children who pass standardized testing at each level. The other is one that produces entry-level workers for a consumer society. Both targets might be interesting as tactics, but neither are inspiring objectives for education. These are very small aims--far too small to guide and inspire an adequate educational system. Let me offer an alternative vision. The purpose of education in the United States should be to create productive citizens for a free society. 

Those words and ideas are worth examining. The first term is "productive." We are now in the twenty-first century. The twentieth century was the American century during which the U.S. was preeminent in terms of productivity, innovation, wealth, and power. The world is a much more complicated place today. The United States is not going to compete with the rest of the world in terms of cheap labor or cheap raw materials. If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it's going to be in terms of creativity and innovation. America has always had a capacity for hard work and stamina, but those qualities of creativity and ingenuity are not being nurtured and fostered by our current educational system. 

The next concept is "citizenship," which is the mutual vision of society that we share as citizens. The decay of that civic principle, that vision of citizenship, within the past half-century is astonishing. We must realize that our schooling system, be it public or private, is the basis of citizenship. Education is universal and mandatory in our society. Schools remain the most important public spaces that we share as citizens, and education creates a foundation of our common lives. Wherever else we go later in life, this is the one time where we are all together. 

It seems to me that the most important thing we can do for our children during those shared years is to give this next generation of Americans a sense of the possibilities of their own life. There is no way we can train people to be productive citizens in a complex, free society if all we do is prepare them to pass standardized tests. I'm not an enemy of these tests, because if people can't read, if they can't add and subtract, they can't do much else. But literacy and mathematics are only the foundation of a building. We need to add the walls and the upper stories. One of the best ways to accomplish this task is through teaching the liberal arts, and in particular, the fine arts. 

We need a system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty, and wonder. It is the best way to create citizens who are awakened not only to their own humanity but also to many possibilities of the human world they are about to enter. 

Poet and critic Dana Gioia is chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts..

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