Jose Feliciano gave it a new beat.
Roseanne Barr shrilled it.
And hundreds, maybe even thousands, of featured soloists have bobbled it or failed to hit the high-G.
“It” is the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
However, according to a recent Harris Poll, about two-thirds of Americans don’t know all of the words or even the origin of the song that became the National Anthem in 1931. Congress made that decision 117 years after Francis Scott Key wrote new words for “To Anacreon in Heaven,” written in the late eighteenth century, and which was probably an English drinking song.
The National Anthem Project is a multi-year project to try to make sure that all Americans learn the words and the historical origin of the song. It is sponsored by National Association for Music Education (known as MENC), with financial assistance from Chrysler/Jeep. Among dozens of organizations that have signed onto the project are the America Legion, the Girl Scouts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Lumber and Building Materials Dealers Association, and the Walt Disney Co. Honorary chair is Laura Bush, herself backed by the House of Representatives and the White House Commission on Remembrance.
The campaign began on Capitol Hill with singers from a high school in South Carolina and an elementary school in Washington, D.C. More than six million children and teachers participated throughout the country in a concert carried by PBS and the Armed Forces Network. During the next few years, the campaign will include “education initiatives in schools, special performances and alliances with professional sporting events, and an extensive mobile marketing tour,” according to the Association.
Buried within the promotion, almost insignificant in the national PR spin, is a reality of what spurred the national campaign. “Recent budget cuts to school music programs have silenced our nation, cutting off students from access to learning about our country’s historical traditions,” said John Mahlmann, MENC executive director.
Because of cuts in arts funding, with increased budgets for sports and several other programs, about 28 million students are not receiving an adequate music education, according to a U. S. Department of Education study in 2000. One-fourth of all principals reported there was a decreased time spent on the arts in their schools, and one-third of all principals say there will be continued decreases in the arts, according to a study published last year by the Council for Basic Education. Ironically, the decrease in music and the arts in schools might even be greater if not for sports—marching bands complement the football program; “rally bands,” combos, and jazz bands complement basketball.
Nevertheless, fewer than half of all students receive music education at least three times a week, says Michael Blakeslee, MENC deputy executive director. Only about 40 percent of all public secondary schools require students to take even one credit in the arts to graduate, according to the latest figures from the Department of Education’s Arts in the Schools survey—and that was conducted a decade ago. The requirements, undoubtedly, have decreased since then.
Part of the problem, says Blakeslee, is implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes basic skills. Rod Paige, former Department of Education secretary, says the program was never intended to reduce arts activities in schools, a claim Blakeslee agrees with. However, “interpretation and implementation of the Act by school districts has led to a significant erosion of music education, especially in the middle school,” says Blakeslee. The extra time spent to meet the Act’s criteria has reduced time spent in the arts. ”If improving basic skills “doesn’t work in how they’re being taught in 30 minutes,” asks Blakeslee, “why will they work at 90 minutes?” The increase in minutes in other areas at the expense of the arts is nothing less than “political expediency,” says Blakeslee.
Although the way schools implement the No Child Left Behind Act may be a problem, American cultural values may be more of a problem. Extensive anecdotal evidence at all levels of education suggests that parents, guidance counselors, and others who have influence upon children and the educational system often encourage their children to “take classes that’ll get you a job,” while discouraging them from going into the arts. Mistakenly, they believe the arts, while “nice,” may be frivolous in job placement opportunities.
Another problem is the Observational Society. Our children watch a limited range of music videos, listen to CDs their peers approve, and attend shrill overpriced concerts. TV and the movies have become not only ways for them to tolerate boredom, but have become the nation’s babysitters. Like sports crowds, our children have become observers not participants. Like the previous MTV generation, they have become so accustomed to being entertained they have failed to become participants, whether in sports, cultural and arts activities, recreation—or in becoming involved in social justice or the political system.
Learning the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” is good. Participating in understanding the history of the music, and being able to sing it in groups is good. It plays to the patriotic urges of the nation. (Perhaps a future project could acquaint the people with the Constitution and civil liberties, something that seems to be missing in our collective education.) Nevertheless, if at the end of the music project, our children haven’t become participants in society, haven’t seen the necessity for the arts—whether dance, visual arts, music, theatre, or writing as just as important to society as plumbers, electricians, lawyers, and business executives—then all that would have happened is that Americans have learned words to a song and have gotten a warm, fuzzy feeling for the country, while still being ignorant our of heritage and still sitting on the sidelines of life.
Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and university professor, and author of 14 books. His latest book is America’s Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights (Feb. 2005, Peter Lang Publishing). You may contact Dr. Brasch through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com.
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