The Great Equalizer
Two weeks ago we celebrated National Arts in Education Week. I hope many of you participated in various conferences, workshops, and community programs across the country that raised up the arts as a societal benefit.
As I reflect on the conversations in which I participated during the week, I am also thinking of the recent tragedies in our nation—with bombings and police shootings that continue to make national and international headlines. Sadly, my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is one of those in the headlines. A 40-year-old African American, Terence Crutcher, was fatally shot by a white police officer on September 16, 2016. Video footage of the shooting from a helicopter and a dash-cam show an unarmed man, with arms raised as if in surrender, being shot.
I’m not saying that if the police officer who shot the victim had just received more arts education during her upbringing, there might have been a different outcome in this tragic situation. What I am saying is that we know arts education levels the playing field and gives those without hope, hope; those without opportunity, opportunity. Mr. Crutcher had attended a music appreciation class at Tulsa Community College just before he was killed.
As a society, I wish we would all pause and take a deep breath and join together to find a way to work together and live together without violence. All African-Americans aren’t criminals. All Muslims aren’t terrorists. All white people aren’t vigilantes.
In Oklahoma, we are paying our teachers at least $5,000 less annually than any other state that borders us—New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. We have a teacher shortage in our state of more than 800 teachers. Our class sizes are growing, days of instruction are shrinking, and a well-educated workforce seems beyond our grasp.
And so we cut taxes to stimulate the economy, which in turn should provide more money for education, right? This approach doesn’t seem to be working—at least not in Oklahoma. Perhaps we are measuring success in the wrong way. Instead of determining how many new prisons we need to build based on high school dropout rates, maybe we should measure how many students who were struggling to stay in school improved their performance and graduated thanks to arts instruction. Maybe the return on investment should be measured by how many students who had discipline issues before they received arts education are now successful and even model students. These statistics exist—on the micro and macro level—but politicians often seem to overlook them. I guess it’s easier to build a prison than fund an arts program—at least in government.
If it were true for pioneering educator Horace Mann in 1848—“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery”—and it were true for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2011—"In America, education is still the great equalizer”— then we must be missing something.
As arts educators, we must continue to promulgate the same messages over and over—to each generation, to each politician, to each school principal, to each parent. Arts education creates a path to success. It’s a path without violence. And a less violent world sounds really nice right now.