Bring Forth the American Renaissance!

As President Barack Obama stays in Europe this week, meeting with world leaders at the G-20 Summit and the smitten mass media in tow, the focus will be on improving the global economy. And why not? America’s 44th has promised “change we can believe in.” So far, that change involves turning a free enterprise-based economy (at least what our Founding Fathers intended to be free enterprise) into a quasi-socialist dump. It also means doing more of the same… In other words, Uncle Sam gets to spend more and more of John and Jane Q. American’s hard-earned tax dollars.

So while Mr. Obama takes his teleprompter overseas to explain how this “change” will positively affect the lives of everyone, everywhere, we here in American still face rising gas prices, healthcare costs and a busted real estate market. But all of those pale in comparison to the greatest deficit we’ve got to pay back — one that hardly anyone wishes to talk about: The education deficit.

Hardly anyone’s talking about it because this is the kind of debt you can’t measure in mere dollars. But you CAN measure it in sense…and right now, the U.S. Government isn’t making much of it at all. The education deficit we’re rolling up right now is leaving one heck of a mess for our children, and their children and the next several generations ahead of them. Education is one of those backburner issues for most politicians — the kind they only speak of at election time, and even then they talk about how they’re going to make it better, without talking specifics.

But anyone who has or knows children in our country’s public education system knows darn well about its shortcomings. We take little Johnny American Jr. and set him in a kindergarten classroom at age five and expect him to learn his alphabet. Then we push him on through grades 1-12 giving him scores of written tests on all the basics of math, science and history — after forcing him to robotically memorize fact after fact after fact, rarely ever giving him a chance to ask the big question: “Why?” I could take it a step further: Why are these facts the way they are? How do they connect to me personally?

Our kids aren’t given the answer as to why. Rarely are they even given a chance to put different historical events together and figure out how they connect to each other, and to the present. Math and science are taught straight up, factually and logically, from their textbooks. The great scientists of the past often engaged each other in rugged, hard-fought debate over the laws of nature and their affects on this world… But our high school curricula don’t give Junior the opportunity to do the same. And the greatest tragedy would be, if he grows up to be the next Isaac Newton and doesn’t even get to realize his potential, much less use it.

Just think, the middle schooler living next door could be a future Albert Einstein, Benjamin Carson, Warren Buffett or even a future president. (I’m talking about the type our Founding Fathers envisioned, not someone who follows in the footsteps of every White House occupant over the last half century.) But we don’t let these future leaders explore how what they’re learning in the classroom relates to world events. Nor do we — because we’re too busy force-feeding them with bland “facts” — let them explore their inner creativity to the point where they can appreciate what it takes to be the next Einstein, et al. We’re put the next several generations of Americans in a huge deficit…and not the kind Washington seems interested in bailing out.

Coping with the Intangible Deficit

As I said earlier, Congress is busy spending more and more money everyday, without any care to the monetary deficit we everyday Americans have to pay for. And part of this spending involves throwing more money at all kinds of park-barrel projects…everything from fighting crime to improving infrastructure to ensuring Johnny American Jr. gets a decent education. If throwing money at the problem were all there was to it, we’d have nicked this education deficit decades ago. Ah, but our congressional delegates don’t realize (or don’t care) that more greenbacks don’t equate to better education children (and more productive working adults).

So what are we left with, then? American kids who are dumbstruck in the face of their generational counterparts from places like Finland and Japan. Depending on where you get your news from, we’re falling behind “emerging market” countries like China and India — and even some other Third World countries — in terms of getting our high schoolers to graduate on time. And the thing to note is, these kids aren’t going to get more competitive just from Congress throwing more money at the problem. No, we need a total reform of the education system altogether.

What I’m talking about here, is a renaissance… The American Renaissance. Yes, a rebirth of thinking and appreciation of learning. And this is one area where we can actually take a good lesson from our so-called allies in Europe. Just read the history books and see what happened over there during the 15th and 16th centuries…a greater appreciation of the fine arts and new scientific achievements.

I think it’s no coincidence the most talented artists of the European Renaissance were also some of the era’s most adept scientists, engineers and architects. One can only imagine what this world would be like without Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific endeavors. Not only did he paint for us The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he also made bold attempts to understand human anatomy and physiology. Plus, da Vinci designed the ornithopter (a precursor for the helicopter), the machine gun and even an armored car. As for other forward-thinking minds, Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; but what a lot of people don’t appreciate about him was how he and his assistants designed a brilliant scheme in architecture to hold him in place, far above the ground, while he labored for four years to make his masterpiece.

So what do all of these Renaissance artists and thinkers have to do with Obama’s agenda? Absolutely nothing! And thank goodness, that’s the best part. They DO, however, have something to do with what we Americans need to do to get out of the education deficit. For too long, our education system has focused on solely reading and writing and ‘rithmetic, just spitting them out to our children and hoping they get it without question, and expecting to just grow up and do something with their lives. All the while, states have cut back on requirements for the visual and performing arts, to the point where high schoolers are required to take only one art or music class in order to graduate.

Coming from a high school program where the visual and performing arts were emphasized and admired, I got very blessed with my education. I’m one of the lucky ones. I might not have been valedictorian of my graduating class, but I got to explore a creative side of me that, I dare say, has been an asset to me throughout my young career thus far.

And Uncle Sam wonders why our high school graduates lag so far behind our rivals in Europe, Asia and elsewhere…

We’ve Had Our Revolution; Let’s Have Our Renaissance

So how do we implement this American Renaissance? Well, believe it or not, folks, it doesn’t require any extra money spent at all. Not by Uncle Sam, not by the state and local governments. Not by lobbyists and event not by concerned parents and teachers.

What we need is to stop holding our teachers back and let them spend more time helping little Johnny and Janey relate various academic subjects to their individual experiences and interests. Government regulations have our teachers’ hands tied behind their backs, as they’re forced to teach the curriculum to fit any given test. But does teaching to the test — and even passing said test — make the student a brighter, more competitive component of the American economic engine? I don’t think so.

That’s where the arts come into play. We need more classes in the visual and performing arts. Johnny American Jr. needs to grow and nurture his sense of creativity — through painting a still life and/or singing in the spring concert — as much as he needs to learn his ABCs and how to multiply two times two. Several studies show students who take an interest in the arts do much better in other academic areas of study than those students who don’t. It’ll also get him away from the books long enough to see that he can think and do for himself, and show other people just how he interprets the world and expresses himself.

With that said, art and music teachers can work in concert with instructors of other academic subjects to show our youngsters how the arts relate to other areas of learning. Basically, we need to nurture that sense of self-growth and creative development. And the best way to do that is to let our students show they can be creative in the way they come to conclusions about various debatable topics. Now, I’m no scientist, but who’s to say that Newtonian Physics is the end-all, be-all for all scientific study? What if there’s some other kind of force out there, that we don’t know about or understand, and we need to figure out how best to use it? Wouldn’t be nice if the next generation of Americans were out on the front lines, developing ways to improve our quality of life to fit this new force of nature? And there are some mathematical problems out there we just can’t solve at this time with trigonometry or calculus… Ought we not to instill some sort of appreciation of the arts in our kids now, so they can have the creative minds to figure out new formulas for solving these problems?

But the biggest question I ask you is this: Do you want America to be competitive again? I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of seeing us lag behind China and India in the number of students we graduate from high school each year…and the number of students who are actually ready to become productive members of their nation’s workforce. I’m tired of seeing our teachers distraught by having Uncle Sam and various state regulators holding them back, thus holding little Johnny and Janey American back. I’m tired of seeing them have to teach to the test…and seeing the government dumb down standards for learning, which only hurts our youngsters in the long run.

I want to see the next generation of Americans be creative and original in their thinking. I want them to appreciate the connection between the past and present…and between art and math and music and science. In order for that to happen, the Fed needs to get out of the way and let teachers and administrators do what they do best…educate our children! Certainly our students can learn much more from their instructors in a growth-inspired, artistic-driven environment than from a set of cold, distant government standards…many of which have no practical application to what’s happening in little Johnny’s community, by the way.

So as President Obama makes the people of Europe all giddy (at least those other than the London protestors), he ought to think about bringing forth the American Renaissance here at home. Now that would truly be change we could all believe in.

Adam Hopkins

April 2, 2009