Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy Father's Day: Caring for Fathers Who Don't Care

Today is Father's Day in the United States a day of celebrating fatherhood with back yard barbecues, home made cards, and gifts that say in some way "thank you dad." My dad was the youngest of five boys in a family of first generation Americans. He and his brothers fought in World War II for a country that they barely knew and upon returning home began to live the American Dream. They worked hard, married and had families. My dad worked from nine to five, coached little league, barbecued on Sundays in the back yard, never cooked in the kitchen, never ironed a shirt, was revered as the bread winner of the family. Roles for the parent's of baby boomers were clearly defined, many moms emulated the wives on Father Knows Best or the Donna Reed Show. They put on make-up and their aprons before their husbands arrived home and took pride in cooking the best pot roast on the block.

Fast forward to today. Roles in the family are no longer dictated by gender which is a consequence of women working for equality in a traditionally male dominated society. This is good. Dad can cook a pot roast as well as iron a shirt and change a diaper. There is a high divorce rate in our country, yet many families manage to cope with divorce and both father and mother remain active in raising their children. But today, Father's Day, also reveals for many households a sadness, a missing link, a gap in the family. Statistics show that in the United States one third of children are born to unmarried parents and a majority of these children will not live in a household with a father present (Western & McLanahan, 2000). The burden of this statistic is exacerbated by the fact that only a fraction of these births were by choice and that a large majority of single parents are women whose income is below the poverty level. Living without dad around is difficult and many single mothers are marginalized by their lack of child support from missing fathers and limited options for childcare. The ticket out of this problem is found in providing resources, services and education for single moms who live in poverty.

But what about the dads? As a society have we given up? Do we accept the terms "dead beat" and "absent" as adjectives describing a large number of estranged fathers? Is there any hope or solution to the fractured family which has become accepted as norm? This problem is not easy to discuss. It is charged with anger by many women and children who relate their feelings about the absent father. The answer must start early, with the education of our young. Further, the answer lies in our ability as a nation to care about those who are marginalized and also to make caring the core of our educational curricula. The word care here does not refer to an act of condescension, a care giver and a care taker, rather, in teaching our children from their first moments of understanding that caring is a reciprocal relationship and should be a part of everything they do in life and every decision they make. If you have not heard of Nel Noddings and her well developed theory of care and caring exploring it can edify the way one understands life and the importance of caring. For many of us the idea of caring is a natural one. The question than becomes how can people who were never cared for themselves learn to care? As educators we should feel the burden of the answer. Doing research and finding programs and avenues to share with our schools and elected officials. As educators we can become advocates both for the students we teach and their parents. There are many programs but we need to look for them. One such program offers teachers tools to teach parenting education, another offers a model of parenting classes for male inmate. I am sure none of them offer a panacea for this epidemic but they do offer glimmers of hope. As educators we must look at the whole child and embrace the challenges that they face as part of what we need to educate ourselves and them about. Caring, especially for those issues which are uncomfortable to care about, may be the key to change. Happy Father's Day.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Art as Experience

The arts and learning: There are many academic articles that point out the advantages of the arts, yet few have been able to prove a direct link between art education and higher test scores. Due to the nature of quantitative and qualitative research, that does not allow researchers to delve inside someones brain to explore if it was the art class they had had that may have helped them get higher test scores in math and reading, we may never get a definitive answer. Neurological research is budding in this area that may help us to more clearly map out these corrolations between actions and academics. But for now, what is known is that history is put into context through the inventions and creations of a given era. In a broad sense through art. When historical time lines are studied it is wars and what was conquered that are marked and in between are inventions and artistic achievements. Western culture has taken art history and created a studied discipline. In reality art history, which in the broad sense includes, creative discovery, invention and architecture is a key element in the nature of humankind and therefore not a discipline but a phenomenon of being. One can argue rightly that geography, medicine and raw materials are what produces mega powers or wipes out entire races (Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond). What endures is the writing, the structures, the art. What man creates is his legacy and what we grab onto for understanding of the past. So my argument for art in school is that it is not a subject, it is, as John Dewey brilliantly wrote in 1934, experience. In his book Art as Experience he eloquently explores how art is life. Here is a paragraph on architecture: "...Buildings, among all art objects, come the nearest to expressing the stability and endurance of existence. They are to mountains, what music is to the sea. Because of its inherent power to endure, architecture records and celebrates more than any other art the generic features of our common human life" (p.230). So do we need art in our schools? Yes. Yes in the broadest definition of art, as human experience, as who we are and in how we can make sense of our world and create avenues to higher levels of understanding.