COLUMNIST AT LARGE\Music educators cheer for 'Opus'.
When your projects and programs are under constant fire, you're grateful for any kind word.
That's why arts-education advocacy groups, from the National Coalition for Music Education to your local school's art staff, are so pleased with the movie "Mr. Holland's Opus," in which Richard Dreyfuss portrays a music teacher who inspires 30 years' worth of high-school students. At last, a movie that delivers a powerful message about the value of music education! At last, some recognition for the kind of teaching that makes a lasting difference in students' lives.
Look at the movie a little more closely. What happens at the end? I'm not giving away any deep secrets here; nearly every national review of the movie has discussed the finale. At the end, Dreyfuss/Mr. Holland is called into the principal's office to hear that his music program has gotten the budgetary ax. He's fired. It's over.
Yes, there is an up-tempo coda to the bad news: Mr. Holland gets a musical surprise party from a whole orchestra assembled from members of the class of 1965, the class of 1973 and so on, who unite to give the first performance of the three-minute symphony that took him 30 years to write. Not surprisingly, the big "opus" sounds just like movie music.
At the end, there are tears and smiles and a full house of success-story students and admiring faculty.
And the music program is still defunct. Mr. Holland is still fired.
If the best Hollywood can do for arts-education advocacy is to celebrate a terminated program, there is some real reason for concern out there. Nor does the movie make a strong case for what a good early music education can do - everything from raising IQ and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores to developing creativity and problem-solving, learning discipline, developing cultural awareness, helping high-risk kids and teaching kids how to work together as a harmonious team.
Still, any recognition from Hollywood that there is more to the fine arts than MTV is a message educators are willing to seize. In the wake of such public attacks as the congressional cuts in the National Endowment for the Arts, arts-education advocates are rganizing so diligently that outsiders may feel a bit confused.
Maybe it is the attention given to "Mr. Holland's Opus." Perhaps it's the fact that March is "Music in Our Schools Month" nationwide, or maybe an extra spur was the recent Newsweek cover story on the importance of the arts in brain development.
In the Northwest, with the enthusiastic support of the Seattle Symphony's Gerard Schwarz and dozens of other individuals and institutions, the Washington Alliance for Arts Education is staging a spring advocacy campaign in an attempt to educate the general public about the importance of arts education.
A week ago, the campaign got a boost from Val Marmillion, a Los Angeles-based national arts advocate who provides consulting for such institutions as the Kennedy Center and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts. Marmillion came to Seattle to dispense advice on how to organize arts advocates so their efforts can be heard.
Marmillion, who says the congressional and other foes of the arts have dominated "because we haven't cared enough to fight them," also advises that "you can never have a campaign without a good fear. In this case, it's the public's fear of the loss of civility - the loss of high educational standards, culture, an understanding of the past and our ability to work together. That fear can be understood by every class in our society."