I think Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has something in this piece for the Wall Street Journal, but I'm not sure he has it quite right. And his proposal for helping is almost lame.
Gioia argues that American culture is poorer than once it was, especially in terms of living artists, writers and scientists playing a large role in the national culture. Key graphs:
"Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.
"I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement. I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show, I saw--along with comedians, popular singers and movie stars--classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.
"The same was true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman and James Baldwin on general-interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American--because the culture considered them important. Today no working-class kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated."
There's something to this, even though it's tinged with a certain kind of nostalgia that tends to see the past as better than it actually was. Remember that during the actual 1950s intellectuals were berating the culture for being shallow and consumerist, for creating no more memorable literary character than Holden Caulfield. The criticism was perhaps overwrought, but there was something to it. My parents instilled a love of classical music and opera in me, but there weren't more than a dozen or so people in our high school who shared that appreciation.
Gioa's proposal is to improve arts education in the public schools. He's right that "The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society."
But how does he expect government schools that can barely teach the three R's to do this well? It is probably true that schools as a whole did better years ago, and there are certainly gifted and dedicated teachers in them today. But the government school system has been an effective monopoly for a long time now, and the tendency of monopolies (real monopolies) is to produce poorer products for higher prices because they face no effective competition. Monopoly systems may start out fairly efficient, and they can be subject to periodic fits of reform, but they become more sclerotic the longer they are in place.
I fear we won't have decent education until we have separation of school and state.