What the Barnes must do next

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So the Barnes is moving to the Parkway. Now what?


My principal adversary on the issue of moving the core of the Barnes Collection to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has been and is Robert Zaller, the polymath professor of history at Drexel University. In our most recent sparring (see “Relocating the Barnes: A Symposium on where should we go from here?”), Professor Zaller expressed interest in knowing more about my ideas for promoting the Barnes’s educational program. What follows is my attempt to comply with Robert’s request.

I must stress at the outset that it would be presumptuous to think I could offer a comprehensive plan for a Barnes Foundation education program for its founder’s intended audience. The foundation’s current officers and board members are much more capable than I of developing such a plan. At most, I can suggest a framework within which such a plan might be conceived as well as a smattering of ideas for the content of a plan.

I take as a given John Dewey’s belief in a powerful symbiotic relationship between education and democracy; and that, therefore, all education (arts included) is strongly linked to the democratic impulse. Dewey saw all too well that education (properly understood and conducted as open inquiry rather than indoctrination) could thrive best (and maybe only) in democratic societies. In turn, democratic forms of government cannot sustain themselves without an educated populace. On this point Dewey was in complete agreement with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1816: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Our stunted aesthetic sensibilities

For much of our history Americans have embraced these Jeffersonian and Deweyan notions (witness our sustained support for compulsory and universal public school education). But the development of aesthetic literacy as an essential skill hasn’t been part of America’s education story. Instruction in the arts, whether performing or studio, has largely been an afterthought; even when included in the curriculum, it’s the first to be cut during times of retrenchment. Predictably, our stunted aesthetic sensibilities have had consequences— among them the carelessness with which we treat nature and the impoverished environment we’ve built in the form of tasteless strip malls, sterile suburbs and life-numbing public housing projects.

Worse, for the past several decades both the general populace and political leaders have begun to back away from the historical support of universal public education altogether. Some see tax-funded public education as evidence of creeping socialism. The sad plight of inner city schools around the country is taken for granted. In Philadelphia, for example, if you are a ninth grader, there is no more than a 50% chance that you’ll finish high school; and these odds are approximately the same in urban areas throughout the country.

“Millions of American adults are ignorant of the most elementary facts, such as the identity of our enemy in World War II,” notes Morris Berman in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. “Seventy percent of American adults cannot name their Senators or Congressmen; more than half don’t know the actual number of Senators; and nearly a quarter can’t name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

A crisis we don’t acknowledge

In spite of overwhelming evidence, very few ordinary people or leaders in American society treat what is happening in public education as a crisis. In my judgment, this is a tragic mistake. We are far along in the deliberate creation of an undereducated, underbelly within American society that will eventually destroy this culture.

For a variety of reasons (the most important being America’s highly decentralized public school system), there will be no wholesale remedy for what ails our schools in general or for the lowly status of arts education in particular. Remedies, if they do come, will be local, specific and incremental.

In Philadelphia we are fortunate that several successful private initiatives are hard at work to improve student retention and to reverse some of the more egregious failures of public school education. The White-Williams Scholars Program and Project Forward Leap are two such efforts. But we also have a private, world-class collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art whose original purpose was to serve as a teaching aid to increase aesthetic literacy among working-class people and marginalized groups within our society. I refer, of course, to the incomparable collection in the possession of the Barnes Foundation.

A non-profit’s fantasy dream come true

The bad news is that since 1951 (when Albert Barnes died) to the present, the Barnes Foundation hasn’t aggressively pursued its founder’s principal objective. The good news is that at long last a not-for-profit organization’s fantasy dream has come true for the Barnes Foundation: It has attracted the interest and financial support of three major foundations that possess the resources to change the face of arts education in Philadelphia.

With a new Center City location that’s closer and more hospitable to Albert Barnes’s intended audience, with more money and a greater capacity to raise money, and with a newly restructured board, the Barnes Foundation will be positioned to change (at least in Philadelphia) the heretofore step-child status of arts education. In doing so, the foundation can easily emerge as a model for the nation.

At my May 21 Drexel University debate with Professor Zaller, various members of the audience seized upon my acknowledgement that Dr. Barnes’s commitment to arts education for the working class was “quixotic.” They expanded it to the claim that Barnes’s working class simply isn’t interested in “high culture,” offering as evidence the tepid response to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s free neighborhood concert series. Did I also hear, sotto voce, the further claim that this particular audience isn’t capable of benefiting from the Barnes Foundation’s idiosyncratic approach to arts education? I hope not. “Quixotic” is not the same as “impossible.” It’s terribly early to be giving up on public education in general or arts education for blue-collar types in particular.

Now for some specific recommendations

First, I would urge the Barnes Foundation to form a partnership with an existing, successful organization already engaged in more broad-based education reform involving the working classes, instead of launching an independent effort. Fortunately, such an organization is close at hand.

Project Forward Leap (PFL) is a 501(c) 3 educational enrichment organization founded in 1988. Under its co-founder and president, Dr. Melvin R. Allen, this institution’s primary mission is to close the gaps in academic achievement and developmental opportunities between academically promising disadvantaged children and their advantaged peers. For more information about PFL see its website at

PFL’s intervention begins at the critical middle school level of grades 6-8. Its programs include students not only from Philadelphia but also from Chester, Columbia, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Carlisle and Steelton. Parents and/or guardians of PFL students are required to participate in 50 hours of community outreach activities and parent workshops during each year their students are enrolled in the program.

PFL students study Latin as well as Greek and Roman mythology, in addition to other rigorous subjects. The majority of PFL students take Algebra 1 in the eighth grade. The program’s students achieve high school graduation rates of 90%, and 85% of those PFL graduates attend college-level programs.

In short, PFL has a long and successful history of working with the same population Dr. Barnes targeted as his primary audience. If the Barnes worked with PFL, I am confident that as early as the summer of 2007, PFL could provide as many as 400 students and adults from the population in which Dr. Barnes was interested for organized instruction in the arts.

Four more specific ideas

I would also offer the following, unrelated and somewhat more specific thoughts:

1. The historic, distinctive Barnes approach to arts education must be maintained in its core features.

2. Since the Barnes Foundation hasn’t been serious, up to this point, in implementing Albert Barnes’s educational objective, there must be important lessons to learn from programs in other large cities where arts education has been provided for similar

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