By Randall Bertrand
On Thursday I had the privilege of seeing the Matanzas High school Troupe 7108’s stage performance of “Newsies” on opening night. Last year, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in schools being shut down just two weeks before the musical was set to open. And here was the stage all lit up again.
Just like the “ghost light” that continues to shine, the spirit of the performing arts never dies. But fine arts programs are threatened across our state and even within Flagler County.
As I am writing this, forces are at work that would limit higher educational opportunities for these performers as they look to a potential career in the performing arts. The Florida Senate saw Senate Bill 86 introduced in February in an attempt to award the hard-earned Bright Futures Scholarship only to students who were pursuing a degree or career-certificate program on an approved list. Many, including myself, interpreted this as eliminating degree programs in the fine arts from receiving any Bright Futures money.
This bill met with so much public outrage and resistance from State Senate member constituents that it has since been amended to state that the Board of Governors, the State Board of Education, and the independent Colleges and Universities of Florida must publish a list of degrees and certificate programs “which do not lead directly to employment.” The Bright Futures scholarship program has long been cannon fodder for the Legislature, its award levels repeatedly slashed while tuition at post-secondary institutions increases at astronomical rates and life-long student loan debt saddles graduates who only want to chase the American dream. This move by the Legislature is nothing more than a funding cut cloaked in an attempt to help students find employment. Be ever vigilant students, parents, and educators.
In our own county the discussion of realigning and redistricting schools has become a common topic of discussion as residential development explodes in our little corner of the world (last month Palm Coast registered its highest number of residential building permits since before the housing crash a decade and a half ago).
Luckily, the Flagler County School Board appears to be leaning toward simply moving 6th grade students to Buddy Taylor or Indian Trails, maintaining the integrity of those two middle schools. It’s in middle schools that students first start taking more specialized programs of study and exploring extracurricular activities such as the Fine Arts. To eliminate our middle schools in favor of the K-8/9-12 model would dilute the ability to deliver and maintain a vibrant arts program within our schools. Our middle schools have crucibles for young performers to start developing those skills that will enrich them later when they attend high school, and even more so when they start college or careers.
Any career is well served with people that can comfortably stand in front of an audience, clearly communicate, and keep their audience engaged. I’ve seen many great ideas from extremely intelligent engineers fail to materialize because they couldn’t keep the audience engaged and see the promise their idea held. I was lucky. I spent many of my high school days perfecting my skills as a performer and artist while also participating in team sports. My current career as an engineer for one of the largest consumer health care companies in the world would seem to bear little resemblance to a career in fine arts. But you must look closely and understand what the arts provide, what they enable in students, whatever their career choices.
When students take classes in drawing, painting, or sculpture, they are not only honing their creative skills, they are developing the ability to accept criticism and feedback from peers and educators. Imagine pouring your heart and soul into an artistic creation and then putting it in front of others to critique. It helps to develop that ability to accept comment without resorting to a defensive posture.
The bottom line is that the arts do more than just serve as entertainment for us or as diversions or resume-padding for students, let alone as luxuries for school districts. Like team sports, the arts develop key interpersonal and critical skills that are rarely, if ever, taught in traditional STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and math). Team sports programs see occasional budget cuts, but nothing remotely as extensive as arts programs in secondary schools. This district is committed to the arts. But even that commitment is under pressure if the message from Tallahassee is that the arts are discretionary, expendable, slashable, and fine arts students are taken less seriously than their STEM counterparts.
As I watched “Newsies” Thursday night, the performers told a story that many can relate to–and not just the story of the play itself. This show had undergone so much hardship, but despite all the obstacles, the energy of these kids was palpable. The arts program at Matanzas High School reflects arts programs all over the country with budgets routinely downsized but persevering through grit and determination.
The relevance of this show is not lost on me either, as “Newsies” is based on the New York City newsboy strike from 1899, where kids sought to force change in the way they were compensated by the large newspapers of the day. A group of kids are just trying to make a life for themselves. The powerful take something away from them. I apologize for the vagueness, but I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. The kids say “enough,” and rise to stand strong against the uncompromising employers. They realize that in their numbers there’s power.
As we see our elected officials seek to strip away hard-earned benefits like Bright Futures scholarships, we must realize that in our numbers there is strength. We have a lesson to learn here. If the powerful seek to take something away, we have the power in our numbers to make a change. If the erosion of arts programs in our schools continue, the quality and purpose of our schools will suffer, and our next generation will be that much more impoverished, however lucrative its careers.
Randall Bertrand, a Palm Coast resident, is a District 4 candidate for the Flagler County School Board in 2022. See his previous column here. Reach him by email here.
Ray W. says
The effort to restrict availability of Bright Futures scholarships to those who aspire to a STEM career is a continuation of an ancient debate between rote learning and the philosophy of Thomas Reid, who introduced the idea of educability during the Age of Reason, which predominated in the middle to late 18th century, at the critical moment when our founding fathers announced their intent to break away from the King of England and perform a radical experiment in republican constitutional democracy.
The rote system of education utilizes a teacher in an all-powerful classroom role, one in which a student memorizes the teacher’s lessons; it is the ability to regurgitate the lesson in a test that is at issue without involving critical thought on the part of the student. Indeed, critiquing a teacher’s lesson is the opposite of rote learning.
Critical thought challenging a teacher’s lesson involves what has long been known as the seven liberal arts. The seven liberal arts contains two segments: First, mastery of the Trivium, which consists of logic, also known as the dialectic method favored by Socrates, grammar, and rhetoric. In a classical liberal arts institution, once students mastered the Trivium, they were then exposed to the Quadrivium, which consists of arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time). The seven liberal arts, in essence, were designed to allow a person to develop the ability to synthesize another person’s information and expand that knowledge into new fields, as opposed to rote learning, which does not promote new ideas, only the ability to regurgitate old ideas when tested.
Thomas Reid’s theory of educability was adopted by some of the early Transcendentalists who were so instrumental in our nation’s struggle to abolish slavery. Many Transcendentalists based their argument on the very old philosophical question of whether our brains are part of this world or separate from the world. These Transcendentalists focused their philosophy on one of the Socratic dialogues. Socrates, Plato wrote, argued that our brains were part of this world and used Mino, a slave belonging to a bystander, to prove his point. Socrates drew a geometric design in the dirt and posed a series of questions to Mino, whose answers proved that Mino could understand geometry simply by the quality of the questions posed by his teacher. The Transcendentalists argued that this particular dialogue proved that even the most uneducated slave inherently possessed the knowledge of geometry if only it could be brought out by the right teacher. In other words, Mino’s brain was part of the world. Since religious authorities in the early 19th century were still debating whether African slaves had souls (the Catholic Church was the first to resolve this issue in favor of African slaves having souls), the Transcendentalists argued against much religious thought of the day that slavery needed to be abolished because all persons inherently possessed the knowledge of the world. A person possessing the knowledge of the world could not be a slave, as any fault in the inability to learn lay in the quality of the questioning. To those in favor of slavery, the fault was in the slave, whose brain, in the mind of the slaveholder, was separate from the world; they believed that slaves were unteachable. The American educational system was transformed by the Transcendentalist idea that teaching should be a collaborative effort between a teacher and a student, not one of rote learning. A liberal arts education, to the Transcendentalists, was key to bringing out all of the knowledge of the world in each student.
In the latter part of the 19th century, a debate raged in England over the necessity of a liberal arts education. Indeed, a British industrialist funded a university with the caveat that all funding would be withdrawn if the university ever adopted a liberal arts curriculum; he wanted the university to produce students who could solve those problems he and other businessmen posed to them, not to think independently and question his business decisions, much less demand better pay or working conditions.
After all, obedient workers provide more profit.
Here we are, early in the 21st century, arguing about whether we should continue funding a liberal arts education with Bright Futures money or use that money to produce only STEM graduates. The only thing that seems to have changed is that those opposed to a liberal arts curriculum now use the derogatory phrase “pseudointellectual”, as if that phrase actually means anything other than exposing the ignorance of the user. As my paternal grandmother used to say, that comment says more about the speaker than it does about those hearing the muddled message.
When the Chinese become masters of the word, maybe you opine as to why.
Many students take college majors with very limited, or low pay opportunities. Then they cry there is no work, or the pay is too low and they struggle to pay of their college loans. I paid for my own, and my wife’s college education. Kids now days find out if you cry loud enough, the taxpayers will pay off my loan. Biden is doing that now. College is a career choice, not a party time to take worthless majors. Take responsibility for you choices as millions of kids have done before you.
The arts are not worthless majors…these kids don’t go to school to party but to hone their craft. My son plans on a BFA in Musical Theater…not to party but to study his passion. Just because his passion is not math or science, doesn’t mean it’s worthless. My son actually had the lead in the musical Randall Bertrand mentioned at MHS this past weekend. This was a dream role and he’s worked hard for two years to perform this role. My son can easily pick up anything musical and learn it because of what he has been taught. He has a talent that shouldn’t be wasted. What would be a waste is if he went to school for something he hated and led a miserable life because he was forced out of something he was passionate about just to fit the mold of what the kingmakers say is most important! I want my kids to be happy and do something they love…and they should have the same opportunity as someone that loves math and science! Maybe one day he will be a teacher if the arts…maybe he will make it on broadway…I do not know what the future holds, but I do know that I will allow him to pursue that which sets his heart on fire!
@Randall Bertrand AND Ray W. (And Pierre Tristam, et. al.)
“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.”
— Jacob Bronowski