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Guest Blogger, Jane Remer: The New Messiah: Are the Arts Waiting for Godot…er, Superman or Woman?

Let’s welcome back Jane Remer to Dewey21C. It’s been a bit of time since her last guest entry. I know I missed her. How about you? –RK

Jane Remer’s CliffNotes
The New Messiah: Are the Arts Waiting for Godot…er, Superman or woman?

October 4, 2010

ist2_2989270-3d-clock-ticking-fast-ntsc.jpgThe latest flurry that has caught the interest of some, but by no means all, Americans (after all, we have the play-offs, football, latest sex scandal, questionable police shooting, the economy, and so forth to distract us), is the documentary movie, Waiting for Superman. Davis Guggenheim, who offered us Inconvenient Truths narrated by Al Gore, and whose “liberal” leanings are paraded in his bios and descriptions, has managed to stir up considerable controversy about what ails American education (oh, no, not that again! We’ve been hearing about that just about every decade since the 1900’s – just ask Diane Ravitch, or better yet, read her stunning collection of books).

I will not recount the many reviews, comments, blogs and other communications about the movie which I’m sure most of you have already read (if not, just Google the title and you will be inundated with hits.) Certain people believe the movie will stimulate a serious debate about education; others are extolling it, critiquing it, or dismissing it. My concern is elsewhere.

American education has had its share of detractors and boosters for over a century. Periodically, and recently, regularly, someone beats the drum for change. The changes recommended vary from decade to decade but the theme is the same: Public education does not work because (you fill in the blanks) and the remedy is (your turn). If we don’t do (the remedy), we will:

• Lose our competitive edge in the global economy

• Look like losers in the “race to the top” of K-16 graduates…these days Finland and a few other surprising countries all of whom have strong teacher unions, detailed and ongoing professional development and support for their teachers, for whom they provide serious preparation and training after passing difficult muster to be admitted to teach. They also pay teachers’ salaries almost twice as high as we do, and have declared education a top priority within their national goals.

• Fall prey to the corporate and business world entrepreneurs who want to make a buck off the situation, especially by investing into charter schools (of which research now shows only 17% do as well or better currently than public schools)

• Look desperately around for a messiah, this time Superman, even though they know that like Santa Claus, he or she does not exist.

I believe we have no chance of getting out of the reform ruts we’re in unless we rely on the investigation of a few “simple” (to say, not do) ideas:

• Fairness to each and every American student. The current side-step is lotteries that send a cruel message and potentially ruin young lives and chances. It is unacceptable that every child or youngster will not get an equally strong and excellent opportunity for a good education. Not in America!

• Fairness to each and every state in the Union. Education is not a business model; when you Race to the Top with a dozen or so states and leave out all the rest of the 50 states, what message does that broadcast about what should be our national commitment to educational opportunity with first rate teachers for everyone! Competition for what should be a civic birthright is divisive and destructive of the collaborative spirit we need to share what works, how and why.

• Education is not a comic book with heroes and villains, angels and demons, that make headlines, stir up a buzz, and then fade, almost immediately from view. It must be a top priority, soundly funded across all the states, that accepts the fact that all the fancy ideas and theories won’t make an iota of sustainable change without legions of top notch teachers for all our children.

• I will skip the insane addiction to testing, a climate of punishment and reward, the prevalence of the business community when it comes to educational policy and politics, and all the rest. You know that, already.

And what, may you ask, does this have to do with the arts in education? Well, quite simply, without serious attention to the infrastructure for good schools and schooling, a commitment to a top notch education for all students, and an abundant teacher work force whose preparation and training includes the arts – all the arts – for all the children, youngsters, teens and adults, we will never see any change in the current status quo. We will continue riding the roller coaster through high and low valleys, stopping to admire and boast about the pockets of excellence scattered around the states that rarely sustain an existence beyond a few years. And we will continue to rely on the occasional grants from national state and local arts councils, foundations and the kindness of strangers and other individual supporters.

My point is given the current economy, the predilections of the President and his Secretary of Education, the mayors and superintendents and chancellors who know little about schools and schooling first hand, and the general unrest across the country, it is either the worst or best of times to take a stand for an excellent education for all, perhaps town by town, city by city, district by district.

Just don’t give up. That’s the message of Godot. It’s also the human condition. We must be our own messiahs in this struggle.

 Jane Remer
JANE REMER’S CLIFFNOTES We are at another rocky
precipice in our history that threatens the survival of the arts in our
social fabric and our school systems. The timing and magnitude of the
challenges have prompted me to speak out about some of the most
persistent issues in the arts education field during the last forty-plus
years. My credo is simple: The arts are a moral imperative. They are
fundamental to the cognitive, affective, physical, and intellectual
development of all our children and youth. They belong on a par with the
3 R’s, science, and social studies in all of our elementary and
secondary schools. These schools will grow to treasure good quality
instruction that develops curious, informed, resilient young citizens to
participate fully in a democratic society that is in constant flux. I
have chosen the title Cliff Notes for this forum. It serves as metaphor
and double entendre: first, as short takes on long-standing and
complicated issues, and second, as a verbal image of the perpetually
perilous state of the arts as an essential part of general public
education. I plan to focus on possible solutions and hope to stimulate
thoughtful dialogue on-line or locally.

Jane Remer.jpgJane Remer has worked nationally for over forty years as an
author, educator, researcher, foundation director and consultant. She
was an Associate Director of the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund’s Arts in
Education Program and has taught at Teachers College, Columbia
University and New York University. Ms. Remer works directly in and with
the public schools and cultural organizations, spending significant
time on curriculum, instruction and collaborative action research with
administrators, teachers , students and artists. She directs the
Capezio/Ballet Makers Dance Foundation, and her publications include
Changing Schools Through the Arts and Beyond Enrichment: Building Arts
Partnerships with Schools and Your Community. She is currently writing
Beyond Survival: Reflections On The Challenge to the Arts As General
Education. A graduate of Oberlin College, she attended Yale Law School
and earned a masters in education from Yale Graduate School.


  1. maureen kenney says

    Thank you Jane.
    At a recent Roundabout Theatre educator’s workshop, Cherry Jones, the star of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, spoke of the teacher who inspired her. She made no mention of Race to the Top or specialized charter schools that segregate neighborhoods. She spoke of her small town in Tennessee where all the students attended the local public school. There was a drama teacher who met after hours with students and helped them select, articulate emotions and present monologues at local community theatre level competitions. NO DATA. NO SCHOOL GRADES BASED ON TESTS. Rather a teacher who loved the feeling that reading plays and performing created in her and all the kids in her small town.
    Oh please. I have just retired from the NYC Department of Education where quantitative measures are driving instruction and are sucking the oxygen out of the love of learning.

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