Soft summer breeze
Makes me think of my baby
I left down in New Orleans
I left down in New Orleans
When you read a verse like that, pure summer perfection, you could almost throw in the towel on writing. That’s “Magnolia,” by J.J. Cale, who died a year or so ago, and he wrote those lines in 1971. How can you write something that good!
Good because, at least for me, it taps into something deep, primitive, and pure inside, which is, at least for me, the reason for the arts, the reason for life. Art is a longing that reaches down into who we really are, our true identity, though it is rarely taught that way in schools. Art is the gift of a new way of defining ourselves and what matters. And that’s why I don’t throw in the towel.
90% of the students at our school, The Grauer School, are in arts classes. This is extremely atypical of school arts enrollment, which hovers at closer to one-third of students in most schools. 40% of high schools in the US have zero arts requirements for graduation. Our school is an island in that way, and other ways.
I know that for many people in schools, the reason for the arts is the fulfillment of a credit requirement. And I know that many schools and parents take it on faith that the arts do not “prepare students for the 21st century.” Not to be cynical, but I also know that people who presume things like that are almost always the same people who go around saying clichés like, “A well-rounded education is vital to our students,” as though it took J.J. Cale to write that. It feels hopeless and artless to watch technology test preparation, and alienating school systems erode our field in the name of “21st century skills”. A whole generation of millennial kids has now come of age in those conditions.
And yet, that lurking paucity of purpose that is widespread in my field is one reason why I find it so compelling to keep showing up in service. The author (and a teacher of mine), Meg Wheatley, has a concept called “Islands of Sanity.” I thank Meg for this concept, even though it can be troubling to think sanity has been removed from our mainstream institutions and culture. But I’m sure it has.
Whenever people want to support schools that are impersonal, stressful, and so overly complex that their true purposes are impossible to discern, I know what’s coming: they are about to start telling me about “education for the real world” and all about how we have to “prepare students for the 21st century.”
An island of sanity would be a place you could go no matter what was going on in the “real world.” On that island, there is music, and purpose, and people you feel connected to who care about your actual identity, and the kind of deep engagement into your work and study that turns even science into art, turns life into art.
Today, social media enables us, and our youths in particular, to manufacture their own identities. For many of our kids, social media is an overbearing, pressing, distorting influence on the “self.” When I grew up, it would have been incredibly embarrassing and humiliating to check how many people “like me” throughout the day. Today this self-obsession is, of course, routine. Technology promised to open up their world, but have you noticed how it is imprisoning many among us?
Identity—the defining of our own identity—is perhaps the first essential act in life. Ultimately, we must choose who to be. The nurturing of that identity during the coming of age, teen years is what a great high school must accommodate. The true, essential role of a high school teacher is to probe their students into clarifying that identity—the teachers who do that are the ones we love and remember.
Not long ago, I saw a student survey that asked, “What age do you identify with?” I was caught off guard. I had seen surveys that asked what gender I identified with, what music I identified with, and even what ethnicity I identified with, but not what age. “Can I really be a teen?” I wondered aloud. When I grew up, those identities were assigned to you (sometimes even music!). Evidently, identity may now be digitally manufactured by each individual. We can post virtual identities to our heart’s content, while integrity and self become shifty and subjective. This is the world of ego and appearances. Is this “the real world” people keep referring to?: A real world where personal identity is subjective?
In a swirl of shifting selves, what becomes of integrity? What becomes of personal ethics?
Irony of ironies, I can’t think of a more important question for today’s youths to answer than, “Who do I want to be?” With clear insight, the outcome of great, Socratic teaching, our teens can answer that question with authenticity and depth, and step forward confidently as who they want to be. So can we.
Many high schools, despite verbiage, are not fundamentally set up to care at all about defining of identity, coming of age, creation of personal meaning and life purpose, much less the depth and longing we experience in a great song.
Nor are they set up for volatile, chaotic or ambiguous times, such as it appears could lie ahead if you read the news. Here is what they are set up to cover: credit checks, grade point average and test scores, social positioning, and attendance. Fundamentally, their purpose is to employ teachers and staff, who manage all that. Today, these schools are awash in numbers being manufactured by a world obsessed with analytics, even as the surrounding world ignores basic earth science (as you may have noticed). There’s no time for identity.
Historically, when education shifts from learning and arts to technical training, the civilization is declining. Today our education agenda gets bundled with the enticing prospect of fantastic, intensely compelling technology: “education for the 21st century!” Historically at times like these, the young seek wealth and status as an outcome of schooling, not service, altruism, or humanitarian values.
A school that was adaptive and driven by connection, service, altruism, and humanitarian values would be an island of sanity, and it would thrive even in hard times. Even if the real world problems are unfixable and falling apart. You would show up for immeasurable reasons as old as time.
Summertime is a good time for the outdoors and for arts, for rebalancing our hearts and minds. If something sweet is driving you mad, take heart. That’s how you know you’re sane.
Magnolia, you sweet thing
You’re driving me mad
Got to get back to you, babe
You’re the best I ever had
You’re the best I ever had
We want to hear from Dr. Grauer’s readers!
~ Click here to leave a comment
~ Click here to send an email message and share your comments with Dr. Grauer
~ Rate this column by clicking on the stars below