Which former U.S. president would defends arts in schools today?
I paused for a moment this Presidents’ Day holiday to muse upon whether one of the eponymous presidents deserved to be honored as a patron of the arts.
Who could step forth from history to embrace the Workshop’s mission of helping young people develop critical thinking, creative expression, and basic learning skills through the arts?
Who, in fact, are we commemorating on this day? George Washington? Abe Lincoln? Both Washington and Lincoln (whose birthdays are Feb. 22 and Feb. 12, respectively)? All Presidents? Or is it properly punctualized as “Presidents’” rather than “President’s” Day? I felt suddenly obligated to tidy up this knot in the thread of American history.
The truth is — it depends on who you ask.
The holiday is officially called “Washington’s Birthday” at the Federal level. However, the holiday is commonly thought to celebrate both Washington and Lincoln. Why even my Outlook calendar proclaims the third Monday of February to be “Presidents’ Day”.
Less ambiguous is the president considered the greatest patron of the arts among US presidents: Abraham Lincoln. And this not just because he was assassinated while watching a play.
Lincoln is distinguished amongst US presidents in that he wrote every speech, every word, to which his name is attached. He was an artist working in words.
Through his art, through is words, he changed the course of American history by freeing a million and a half human beings from slavery. Lincoln created an America where the claim of universal equality in the Declaration of Independence was made manifest.
Abraham Lincoln credited his escape from the log cabin and a backwoods life of illiteracy and manual labor to two gifts: education and the arts. These gifts did not come unearned.
In Lincoln’s family and community, education, if any at all, meant obtaining the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. Literature and the arts began and ended with the words and images of the Bible. Lincoln was only able to feed his lifelong love of poetry and classic literature by sheer force of will.
It is easy to make a parallel between Lincoln’s circumstances and the under privileged public school students of today. These young minds are being conditioned by a curriculum dictated by standardized testing – the modern national equivalent of rote learning through the Bible.
Is there room for students to learn how to learn, to reflect and think critically, to find the confidence and skills needed to be creative? Will their thinking and interactions make them sensitive to the true nature of what it is to be human?
Today, there is only the rare opportunity afforded to students to blossom through the arts. These opportunities, during school and after school, are only provided by organizations such as the Performing Arts Workshop. The skills built through the Workshop’s teaching methodology are needed not just by presidents – but by all members of society.
Minds are only capable of great things if they have a passion for expression. Wisdom is only possible by a mind that can listen and use thinking as a mean to reflect objectively on what has been learned. Do standardized tests form a mind capable of quotes such as those attributed to Lincoln?
Quotes like (two of my favorites):
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” (Abraham Lincoln)
“You can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” (Abraham Lincoln)
Abraham Lincoln lived and died to liberate America from the tyranny of slavery. His passion to fight for justice and freedom was a product of an education rich with poetry, literature and theater.
Today, the Workshop’s methodology and legions of teaching artists might be the only encounter a student might have with the arts and artistic expression. Lincoln’s life and achievements clearly illuminate the importance of an arts based program that builds confidence, leadership, and respect. The Workshop builds these skills and provides a creative learning environment that fosters self-efficacy skills, cultural understanding, and an opportunity to engage in discussions around community and social issues.
Seeing the Workshop’s mission reflected in the life of Abe Lincoln makes me appreciate how lucky I am to have the opportunity to be of service to their program.
Ron Reitz is the Workshop’s Board Treasurer. Outside the Workshop, he enjoys bicycling, backpacking and exploring California deserts.