These days I find myself in stark disagreement with the editorial page of my old colleagues at The Oregonian far more than I did when I worked there. Not that I always agreed with them back then: I thought the blank check they were willing to give the Columbia River Crossing mega-bridge defined reckless and ignorant, for example, and I opposed their strange calculation that tearing down Memorial Coliseum and building a minor league baseball park there at considerable expense to the public treasure made any sense, except as the act of a small group of minor league baseball nostalgists. Just to name two.
Now that the publisher of the newspaper, N. Christian Anderson III, has wrenched the paper’s opinion columns toward the Libertarian Right, I find those columns increasingly incomprehensible—you can’t take a philosophy built on the ideal of the 18th century yeoman farmer and plunk it down into a contemporary 21st century city and expect it to be very useful.
So, I wasn’t surprised by the dim argument against the proposal to restore arts education to the public schools via a small income tax increase that the editorial page mustered today. I’ll dissect that argument quickly, because it wasn’t very substantial: Given budget constraints, the school system was right to allow arts instruction to “wither” because the arts are “low priorities.” That’s it. That assertion. Based on… nothing.
The Portland Public School system graduates something like 60 percent of its students, so evidently that concentration on the basics of math and science (and the editorial quaintly includes “writing,” as though writing isn’t an art) isn’t working very well. We now have good evidence, not just the abundant anecdotal evidence at hand but actual studies, that the arts help keep kids in school and then help them excel. The arts, after all, are mostly about problem solving, about developing the discipline it takes to master a core competence, about developing and applying creativity to various situations. They are both hands-on and minds-on. They connect us to our own cultural past and help us understand the cultures of others.
Science and math are part of that cultural past, of course (not that I think The Oregonian editorialists know anything much about those subjects), and a painting student, plunging into the history of that art form, inevitably runs into the Greek idea of the Golden Ratio, for example. Music students are even more deeply involved in ratios of various sorts, and these days, computer science among other things. We could go on at length (determining the firing temperatures of clay, the psychology of a dramatic scene, the politics of a history painting). The point is that the arts inevitably turn around and touch (and are touched by) other areas of life. That’s why they are so central to our lives together: They are connectors.
But back to school. Say we wanted to introduce a kid to science. What’s going to work better, working out firing temperatures for pots, which 5th graders could do, or those old chemistry experiments you botched in 10th grade?
The Oregonian doesn’t really want to argue about the arts, though. Like science and math, they don’t really know much about them. They’d rather argue that there are other ways to support them than through taxes. Which is right. Of course, we can support education in other ways, too. The Libertarian position, after all, is that schools should be voluntary associations. (Their advice to the Portland Public Schools in an accompanying editorial was to demonstrate better stewardship of the buildings they own before asking for more money to maintain them. That maintenance has “withered” just like the arts program. The newspaper doesn’t suggest how the “budget constraints” could have been managed differently to demonstrate this stewardship.) So, the days when The Oregonian argued for school support are probably over. And health research, too? I expect so. Though apparently massive bridges and minor league baseball parks are just fine. Yes, they are bad at being Libertarians.
If bridges were that important, some alert entrepreneur or band of heavy users would get together and build one, right? Personally, I wish they’d start a ferry service instead, far more picturesque and far more 17th century. Actually, the native people who lived along the Columbia employed thousands of canoes of various sizes to accomplish the same thing. That would be SO much better for us, wouldn’t it? (Early European visitors marveled at their skill, both in building and managing the craft. Personally, I’m willing to go back to those practices. We could set up a viewing platform to watch Clark County row its way to Portland every morning.)
The Libertarian position isn’t democratic at heart. In a democracy, we can decide that something is important enough to our common welfare for us to chip in and accomplish it together. Which is how we build roads and schools, fund medical research, protect air and water: Together. Libertarians think about only one part of the freedom equation, the individual. That’s really important, but it’s only one part. Primates are social, too, and as we proliferate, we need to work together more and more, if we want to make sure we hand over a functioning culture (in the broad sense) to generations to come. By myself, I can’t guarantee that my drinking water is clean, because there’s always someone else upstream. I can do things to make my air breathable, but I don’t just breathe “my” air: Your air blows over me, too. And I can’t educate myself, because I depend on the transmission of the accumulated knowledge of the generations before me.
I am not a Libertarian, as you can tell. I’m a pragmatist and a democrat, though in these awful times for democracy, it’s hard to think of government by, for and of the people as a very pragmatic course. Not least because it depends on good arguments and thorough testing of those arguments until a common purpose is determined. The Oregonian editorial page should be a good place to see those arguments made and tested. With regard to the arts tax, it has failed at this, because it hasn’t said anything useful, pro or con. It has merely made an ideological assertion, one I’d urge you to ignore.
Should we vote for an arts tax, both to support arts education and nonprofit arts groups in the city? Let’s hear the arguments. And then the rebuttals. And then the re-rebuttals. And then decide. Which is how it should be in a democracy.