I find it intriguing that when archaeologists wish to study the status of past civilization they examine the artifacts of art. They look at pottery; they look at cave paintings; they look at music instruments to determine the quality of the culture, and I wonder what future archaeologists will think of us as they dig up plastic and coke bottles. The Arts are, in my opinion, above all a special language of the children. Even before they learn to speak little children, two and three years old or earlier, respond intuitively to dance and to music, to color and to rhythm. The Arts are uniquely helpful in my opinion for children who are disadvantaged. For years I taught children who were deaf. These children couldn’t speak because they couldn’t hear. They were hugely frustrated because there is something in us that wants to get the message out. We need connections. Deaf children could not sustain that social interaction, so they had fear and frustration, which they expressed in rage. But I often observed that when you put a paintbrush in their hands, or when you provide music for them to feel if not hear, they discovered the satisfaction of self-expression and I have often been inspired by the Golavit dancers in this city, who may not hear the sound but feel the rhythm of the dance-floor and themselves become magical in the messages that they send.
The simple fact is that every student who enrolls in school has the innate urge and, I am convinced, the innate capacity to be artistically expressive, and it’s really tragic that, for most children, the universal language of the arts is suppressed and then destroyed in the early years of learning because school boards consider Arts a frill. I’m suggesting that for the most intimate and most profound, and most moving experiences in our lives we turn to music and to dance and to the visual arts to express feelings and ideas that words cannot convey. The Arts are, as one poet put it, “the language of the angels,” and to be a truly educated person surely means being sensitive and responsive to that universal language we call Art, which should be a central strand of the curriculum in every school.
The brings me to human commonality number 4. As we’re all non-uniform, as the Stanford students put it, and while we differ dramatically from one another, the simple truth is that all people on the planet have the marvelous capacity to place themselves in time and space, which no other creatures on the planet have the capacity to do. We explore our sense of space through geography and astronomy and we explore our sense of time through history, and yet how often we squander this truly awesome capacity to took in both directions even neglecting our own roots.
Looking back several years ago, it occurred to me that the most important mentor in my own life was my grandfather Boyer, who incidentally lived to be 100 years. When he was in his early 90’s, I asked grandpa one day what he thought of man walking on the moon, and he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Ernest, the moon was made to look at, not to walk on,” and I’m convinced that to his dying day he was convinced that moonwalking was the fantasy of an over-imaginative grandson. The point is though that grandpa, at the age of 40, moved his little family into the slums of Baton, Ohio, which as you know is the cultural center of the freeworld (joke), where I was born. He then spent the next 40 years running a city mission, working for the poor and giving to the needy, teaching more by example than by word that to be truly human one must serve – a lesson I didn’t learn in school, I learned by looking at a grandpa who knew how to live a life. And yet far too many children do not have inter-generational connections.
Margaret Meade said on one occasion that the health of any culture is sustained when three generations are vitally interacting with each other. A kind of vertical connection in which the different ages are connected. And yet in America today, we’re creating what might be called a horizontal culture, with each generation living all alone, disconnected from the others. Infants in Nurseries, toddlers in day care, older children are in schools and we layer them by age, college students are isolated on campuses, living in a climate of low-grade decadence; adults are, at best, are in the work place and older citizens are in retirement villages living and dying all alone. For several years my own parents lived in a retirement village, where the, average age was 80. 1 called my father one day, he said, no big deal being 80 around this place, you have to be 90 just to get a cake! Waiting for that birthday party in the sky. But the nice feature is, they had a day care center there, so that every morning 50 little 3 and 4 year olds came trucking in, and every little day care child had an adopted grandparent. They met with them every day and had a sense of bonding, and when I called my father he wouldn’t talk about his aches and pains, he’d talk about his little friend, who he was sure was going to be Governor, or even President some day, and when I visited he had the paintings and drawings taped on the walls. There was something powerful about the authenticity across the generations, the connectiveness of things. An older person being inspired by the energy of an innocence of youth and a little boy being inspired and learning lessons about the courage and the agony of aging.