Friday, November 17, 2006

The Fourth "A" - Asia

Several years ago I proposed that, as a society concerned about educational quality, we should do away with the “three Rs” and replace them with the “three As.” I proposed this for several reasons: one, only one of the three R’s is an R; two, there is so much more to basic learning than reading, writing, and arithmetic; and three, schools who want to sacrifice the arts on the budgetary altar don’t need the added incentive implied by not mentioning them in the three R’s.

My mantra for the past eight years has been for schools to develop learning plans for their districts, schools, and individual students that focus on Academics, Athletics, and the Arts. A school that places appropriate emphasis on the knowledge of and appreciation for excellence in academic pursuits, athletic pursuits, and artistic pursuits will, I believe, consistently churn out better rounded citizens than those that don’t.

But lately I’ve been curious about what else might be done to create an optimal learning environment in our schools and for lack of any originality on my part, have come up with a fourth “A.”

Asia. Okay, I’m stretching things a bit. What I’m really talking about is China, but “three As and a C” doesn’t roll off my tongue as easily as “the Four As.” So for the sake of argument, let the fourth A equal C.

Besides several million Chinese-Americans who live in some of our more populated cities, how many Americans know anything about China other than what they have read on the menu at the local Chinese restaurant? How many of us know how much of our debt China now owns, or how many of the consumer goods we wear, drive, listen to, or talk into, are made in China?

If you’re like me, you know next to nothing about China, and since the purpose of this essay is to tie it back to educational opportunities in Vermont, here’s an idea:

We should find a way to encourage school systems in the state to develop K-12 programs that immerse children in the Chinese language and, as language skills reach appropriate levels, starts teaching other subjects (like reading, writing, arithmetic and—yes—art!) in Chinese!

Oh sure, our educational bureaucracy would never stand for such a thing, but bear with me for a moment. Think of the possibilities. First, regarding our under-populated school system, think of the interested parents from out-of-state who would move here in order to have their children exposed to this kind of learning environment. Second, think of the university matriculation rates of Vermont high school graduates who just happened to speak and write Chinese. Think of the employment opportunities for those high school graduates with such skills.

And on a bigger picture, imagine how much greater world understanding there would be if an ever-growing population of young Americans—Vermonters all—were to reach out across the Pacific, reach out across what is right now an enormous cultural divide, and learn the language(s) of what is still the most populous country in the world—the country that owns almost as much of our debt as Japan, the country that makes the computers I write these essays on.

If this model works for you, but you don’t want to pursue Chinese, then feel free to apply the same approach to Spanish, or Arabic, or any other of the worlds great languages! For the moment, however, I’m sticking with Chinese. Here’s why.

On November 28 and 29, 2006 the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Zhou Wenzhong, will visit Vermont on a trip sponsored by the Vermont Chamber and the Vermont Council on World Affairs. The Vermont Youth Orchestra (planning a tour of China next summer) will play at a special Culture and Arts Breakfast. I plan to be there and meet His Excellency. I’m curious about him. I’m curious about his country. I’m curious for me. And I’m curious for my children.

I also like the symmetry of the Four As.

Monday, November 6, 2006

The Creative Economy

Among the most common questions I am asked is “What’s this I hear about the Creative Economy?” Since 1998 the Arts Council has slowly and steadily tracked the network of towns, villages, neighborhoods, and people all over Vermont who, through their own experience and hard work, are looking at ways to re-invigorate themselves through this “new” sector.

Depending on whether I’m chatting with friends or close colleagues, giving a lecture at a school, or talking to community service organization members, I have three different definitions of the Creative Economy to suit the moment.

The simplest definition is based on one that Robert McBride of Bellows Falls uses. His basic point is that the Creative Economy is the result of fun, creative people sitting around a table thinking up fun, creative stuff to work on together. The implication is that the more fun and creative it is, the more it will be valued by those who experience it (neighbors, local business, etc.), and the more people will be attracted to do more of it.

The most complex definition is that which was created by the New England Council. It identifies Creative Industries (private and nonprofit sector entities whose services and products are the result of creative activities); Creative Workers (the individuals in any industry who are the originators of creative output—they don’t necessarily work for a creative industry, but their creative output certainly has value: think chip designers for IBM); and finally, Creative Communities, which are the geographical locations where fun, creative people tend to congregate (live, work, play) and attract entrepreneurs and start-up businesses.

The definition I like to use most often is in between the two. It is those economic and social conditions that have to exist in a place in order for that place to support a thriving network of cultural institutions and activities. It is also the economic and social result of what happens to a place when a thriving network of cultural institutions and activities is encouraged to move in and, simply speaking, set up shop.

The creative economy, therefore, is not something new. Nor is it something necessarily unique. In fact it isn’t really a “thing” at all. It is a dynamic process that tracks the ebb and flow of human life and returns it with interest to the people that are working to improve it.

We in Vermont are blessed with a multitude of places that are ripe for generous, even copious applications of “the Creative Economy.” The Vermont Council on Rural Development has a statewide project underway that, when complete, will have provided significant technical support to 14 towns who have expressed a desire to explore whether it will fit into their long range community/economic development plans.

And by now everyone knows of the informal Creative Economy “Poster Towns” of Vergennes, Brandon, Brattleboro, Bennington and Bellows Falls. But don’t forget White River Junction, St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Rutland, Bennington, Hardwick, Morrisville. I even hear murmurings from Manchester, Springfield, Bradford, Newport/Derby, Enosburg Falls, the Islands, Waterbury, and dozens of others.

The list could go on and on. Why? Because the Creative Economy is what Vermont is all about—and has been for generations. Think about the Precision Economy at the end of the 19th Century. Think of our landscape. Think of heritage—those historical and human artifacts that keep “drawing us in close.” It’s too simple to say that the Creative Economy is just about arts and cultural institutions, because it’s not. Nor is it just about jobs or schools or faith or recreation. It isn’t even about skiing and maple syrup and fall foliage and cheese and ice cream.

(Okay, we’ll talk about ice cream separately, shall we?) It’s really about all of those things. And we get to choose, community by community, town by town, how to make it matter to us. Because, trust me, it does matter to us. All of us.