I'd like to direct your attention to this article in the Washington Post, "Pearls Before Breakfast." That article illustrates to me that public school in America is absolutely successful at what it sets out to do, and that the vast majority of us are the natural products of our training.
The article covers a social experiment conducted by some of the Post's staff writers:
He emerged from the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play...
In the three-quarters of an hour that he played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
"He" is Joshua Bell, arguably one of the best violinists of all time, and what he played was a sampling of some of the best music ever written for violin. He played for free, on his Stradivarius violin, posing as just another busker at rush hour, to see if beauty could transcend context.
These people, these passersby, are largely government workers. The world does not end if they're ten or fifteen minutes late, but we are so conditioned by the bell ringing to be in our seats on time or face the direst consequences the bureaucracy can throw at us, that we no longer are even able to stop for beauty. We have a time clock to punch, and that is the all-important priority in the morning. We have to be in our seats on time, and twelve years of public school indoctrination has drilled that into our habits so completely, that as adults, we're still doing it, and allowing it to be done to us. "Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?" asks the article.
In this case, the opportunity cost to these people of this habitual behavior was to miss out on something irreplaceable. Something that they will never see again, was determined by their force of habit, to be less worthy than being to work on time.
In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.
"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.
In the subsequent article, it was determined that most of the passersby didn't even recognize the music for what it was. We don't listen to music outside our own very narrow preference range, usually. There's no benefit to it. We listen to whatever the radio's playing, with no time or appreciation or attention for whatever isn't. It was noted that at least one person rushing by couldn't even hear what was being played, due to his iPod. It's especially true of urban dwellers, but as a culture we're increasingly surrounding ourselves with us-ness, and cutting ourselves off from the experiences that could illuminate, expand, or challenge us. Which is hardly surprising, since we've spent twelve years being told to read the book and only the book, and answer questions only on the material the teacher deems important and that therefore by extension anything else is either wrong or irrelevant. If it was important, I would have been taught it somewhere along my educational career, right? So if I don't know what it is, it must not matter.
It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.
Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.
Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.
Our need to rush on to the next thing, to keep our schedules, to ignore the fascinating things happening all around us isn't inherent, it's trained. Trained by years of having just 50 minutes per class, then ten minutes to rush to the next thing, sit down, settle down, focus on the next checkbox until the next bell. We are not born this way.
A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand. "I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."
Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.
You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.
"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."
So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs. "Evan is very smart!"
The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.
...But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
Those children knew what over a thousand adults passing by had been conditioned to ignore; that something fantastic was happening, something worthy of attention. And their parents, who were on a time crunch (for what? We'll never know) physically blocked that spark of curiosity, that urge of their child's, to explore what they were hearing. At three years old, Evan got the message that schedules and time crunches and whatever he was going to be being taught that day was more important than hearing the art coming from a man who can command $1000 a minute for his talent, who was sharing that talent for free, in exchange for nothing more than a temporary, almost fractional pause, in the daily grind.
Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L'Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.
Something fundamental, something primal and critical and necessary has been crushed out of the American people. Is it unreasonable for me to think that we are behaving just like well-trained monkeys? Twelve years of steady conditioning is not inconsiderable. It takes far less than that to achieve results with rats. Have we become a juggernaut of widget-crankers, incapable of spending even scant minutes on glory?
We can do better, we must do better, and as parents making the choice to step away both from the training and the scheduling, we are making our stand against the pressure to mindlessly conform. We have the opportunity to model for our children that art both great and small is happening all around us all the time, and that these transcendent, transitional moments of grace are available to be captured in the soul. As fortune favors the prepared, creating a life that allows for effervescent moments to be experienced, I think, is something that is a calling.
Laureen is a writer, a professional editor, a scuba instructor, a beginning sailor, a traveler, and an obsessive researcher who's chiefly focused on, and delighted with, her husband Jason and her sons Rowan and Kestrel. She's a lifelong Californian, which lends a very distinctive spin to both her ideas and her politics, and she's discovered, in her peregrinations, that the world is far smaller yet far more fascinating than anyone gives it credit for being. She holds forth her opinions on that in her blog, The ElementalMom.