Main Street: Class in America

Rich Wandschneider

My friend Allen teaches at Catlin Gabel in Portland. Over the years, I've enjoyed meeting many teachers and students from the well-known private school. I've watched their kids run in state track meets with our kids, attended meetings and lectures on their campus, and thought a lot about the differences in private and public education as a result of it.

Tuition at Catlin is now about $17,000 a year. They run a first class lecture series with nationally known people; take their drama and chorus groups and science classes on great trips. They even encourage student volunteers in community projects and give scholarships to smart middle and low income children.

And last week while I was in Portland Allen took me to the Catlin Gabel Middle School Music Program. The school invited parents and teachers to join the children. And it was a marvelous evening. A sixth grade girl played a wonderful clarinet solo, an eighth grader one on the flute. Another eighth grader sang songs from Gershwin - everything about her voice and stage presence told us that she was serious about music and was probably getting private tutoring in addition to the teaching at Catlin.

The music teacher bounced around the stage, playing piano with one group, directing the chorus, and plugging in his electric bass to play along with a folk group of fiddlers and banjo players and a jazz group featuring a student trombonist. A math teacher and two of his former students played ragtime piano, and a group of women teachers sang a couple of tight harmony songs from "Oh Brother Where Art Thou." The parents of the girl chanteuse played a four hand piano duet, and a grandad who accompanied several young musicians on piano did a brief and very good imitation of Victor Borge.

So why did this particular evening get me so stewed up over public and private education? Because we are losing the arts in our public education system. And because the concert highlighted class differences in America. Rich people in America, and especially people of old wealth, know about music and art. Some of them become artists and musicians, but many of them become art patrons. In simple terms, they have the means to attend concerts and buy paintings and sculpture. In general terms, the arts, like expensive golf courses, provide events and opportunities for them to socialize and make business connections. In this way the arts are one measure of class division in America.

I should add that many wealthy patrons do their very best to make the arts available to everyone. These people realize that art and culture throw up divisions, and work hard to diminish them. They donate money for museums and orchestras, patronize professional artists, and provide scholarships for promising artists in efforts to reduce societal divisions. Many patrons of the arts also feel a responsibility for passing culture on to future generations.

In expansive times in our history, there are more general attempts, involving public institutions, to extend the opportunities for education, art, and culture across economic classes. In the postwar '40s and '50s, the country was thriving and cheap education (and housing and business loans) made it possible for low and middle income families to climb social and economic ladders. In the tumultuous '30s and '60s, there were progressive efforts to democratize education and the arts - WPA arts programs in the '30s; generous scholarships and even the CETA Program of the '60s and '70s.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had a wonderful university education, courtesy of the state of California in the '60s, when the University of California paid the highest wages and attracted the brightest faculty from across the nation - and charged zero tuition. I still see references to some of my old faculty favorites.

Of course California now charges tuition, and although California schools are well thought of, they are no longer the elite of state institutions - even with that money from tuition. California, like Oregon and most other states, continually balances the tuition charged with what the market will bear. And Oregon universities recruit California students to help balance budgets.

Those college controversies were at the forefront a few years ago, when we were still living the Measure 5 illusion that k-12 education would continue to be "fully funded." Now, the battles have moved from universities downward, and the problem lands squarely in our local k-12 schools. How many students in a classroom? How many aides? Music? Art?

Catlin Gabel students, and those in thousands of private schools across the country, will go on having art programs and music programs. Teachers and private tutors will introduce them to the subjects, and they will go on to refine tastes in colleges that they can afford. A few low and middle income students will get scholarships to these schools, and a few public school students will climb through the public higher education system with work and scholarships, and join some of the people who patronize the arts - and run the country. Their numbers will decline.

There are many important reasons for providing arts education in public schools. Blurring the differences between economic classes is probably not the most important one. But on an evening in Portland when gifted middle school students strutted their stuff in front of and along with teachers and parents who know how important art is to who they will become, it stuck out like an off-key rendition of God Bless America.

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