Illustration by iggdeh
The United States education system has been in an era of decline since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. With the federal government struggling to keep itself afloat at the time, various areas received funding cuts and education was one of the areas most impacted. Although the economy has improved since the recession, the way that public education is funded has gotten worse in many states. The decline of US education is undeniable. Compared to other countries with similar economies and infrastructures, the US falls behind in education funding by approximately 4%. Tennessee, North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania are a few states struggling the most with education funding; educators and advocates recognize this need for change. In all of the states listed, plaintiffs are suing their state governments arguing that the US is contradicting its own constitution by underfunding public schools. By underfunding schools, the US government does not prioritize the flexibility of American minds, flexibility that comes from learning critical thinking skills and would help people navigate the difficulties the world may throw at them. After graduating school, Americans only have two options: sink or swim. On the contrary, the United States dominates the entertainment industry globally with a media and entertainment industry worth $660 billion. Although the entertainment industry is not federally funded, its influence in and outside of the US is enormous. These two facts seem to be polar opposites. By undervaluing education and prioritizing entertainment, what message do Americans receive? We can learn a lot about our minds, emotions and spiritual selves from the art we create and consume.
The arts were amongst the first programs removed from many public schools when the recession hit in 2007. Maybe public education in the US is not as reliable as it has been made out to be. With many schools turning to virtual instruction after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, students have reported having trouble staying engaged through a computer screen. The quality and humanity of public education in the US will continue to decline if changes are not made. The education system is so difficult to navigate, that public school educators are among the most undervalued careers in the United States. Teachers are dramatically underpaid when comparing the average teacher salary to the average impact of a teachers career. Teachers often invest their own finances, emotional labor, and mental wellbeing to provide much needed support to their students. They are expected to fill a gap left open by the government without the support and security of government finances. This has led to teacher shortages across the country while the student population continues to grow.
The same students going through US public schools go on to voice personal opinions that continuously show a lack of intelligence (mental and emotional) and respect for themselves and others. I can see this in events like the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and protests against mask mandates. This lack of critical awareness is a direct failure of the US education system. Humans crave knowledge and a connection to the world that is outside of their daily routines. A boom in the consumption of virtual media during the pandemic proves a human desire to connect with the world outside of themselves. The art that we consume can either reinforce ideas in our minds or help bring awareness and a sense of flexibility to our minds, allowing us to learn more about ourselves and the people we share the earth with. But, when schools in the US put less of an emphasis on the arts, the minds of American students suffer most.
Art provides room for interpretation of taboos and “concrete” ideas. Exploring ideas through an artistic lens allows students to interpret information for themselves. Due to an increased emphasis on standardized testing, in most classes “learning” is a cycle of information being spit out by a teacher, consumed and memorized by students, then performed on a test. Once the test is over, that information is often forgotten and the cycle begins again. The US education system prioritizes performance. How well can someone blindly consume and regurgitate information spit at them? In the US, there is a dramatic difference between receiving an education and learning something, although they may seem synonymous at first glance. The education system teaches people how to work for others and accept external criticism as truths. The hierarchy presented between higher-ups and students in schools reinforces this idea that acquiescing to the desire of external forces is necessary for you to move up in the world. But this is not true. Art has the power to break this paradigm. Art provides a way to bend rules, be rebellious and to contemplate the validity of things that have previously been expressed as truth. After leaving school, one thing I had the most trouble with was learning to accept the validity of my internal guidance and intuition. I had been conditioned to seek external validation in everything I did so I was seeking it in my relationships, on the internet, and at work. After all, I just felt used by people around me not realizing that the western capitalistic system profits off of this way of thinking. I had been conditioned to fear rejection and not to fully trust myself because of that fear. Public schools are notorious for restricting the consumption and expression of art with rules regulating how students can dress, style their hair, and interact with technology. Yet the culture reinforces all of the things that schools attempt to restrict.
Technology is recognized as a gateway to the future, and a lot of the ways we consume, create, and communicate happens through technological devices. Like art, technology has the power to help us communicate culture, which is so powerful that it shapes our subconscious minds. However the same culture that is often dimmed in schools, is reinforced through arts. It seems like entertainment and education work against each other. Take for instance classic high school films like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Mean Girls. Although these movies take place in school, education is never an important factor in the plot. Being rebellious, attractive, and white are seen as the epitome of the American public school experience. In these films and in many others, intelligence is painted as an undesirable trait while slacking off, rejecting authority, and being attractive is glorified.
These themes seep into the American school system. Students crave the freedom of the characters in these films. But the reality is that the values expressed in these multi-million dollar films communicate a fantasy separate from the lives of typical American students.
Culture continuously contradicts what I have been taught as truth. In a way, it seems like the art that has come from the United States tells a more accurate history than the textbooks in public schools. Debates around Critical Race Theory show me that the history of the country has been censored to benefit a narrative of white supremacy. But the entertainment industry cannot censor talent. In talent lies the expression of an undeniable personal truth and although exploitative, the entertainment industry cannot deny the truth of talent. By acknowledging someone’s talent, their ideas have the power to undermine historical narratives by providing a personal interpretation of history. The importance of ideas that may seem irrelevant to upholders of white supremacy cannot be denied because of the public’s response to art that is rebellious. By expressing a personal truth, artists create a way to liberate the minds and hearts of consumers that relate to their content. Take the career of artists like Tyler the Creator and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Critics of Tyler’s early music labeled it ignorant and obscene, so much so that Tyler was banned from the entire country of New Zealand until 2019. But this form of “obscene” expression communicated something to fans that had never been expressed before, attracting a loyal fanbase and allowing Tyler to build one of the most influential entertainment and fashion empires in the world.
To be a “successful” artist, you first have to abandon the idea that others’ opinions and beliefs are superior to your own. Art teaches us to trust our judgment creatively and this creative practice spills into the way artists live their lives. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a trailblazer and a legend in the contemporary art world. He was criticized throughout his entire career for his untraditional art and expression by people who judged his art based on their own biases and inaccurate standards. What these critics did not recognize was that Basquiat was in the process of changing the art world, and it was their ignorant criticism that held humanity in a state of fear and judgment. Basquiat grew to become the highest selling contemporary artist of all time.
Life is a journey of humans attempting to understand their personal legacies. Many times, the art we are drawn to expresses what we feel but have a hard time communicating. Successful artists articulate everything we have been conditioned to suppress. By investing so much money into entertainment, the United States paints the arts as somewhat larger than life. Hollywood and the music industry are full of expensive charades that make art and artists’ lives seem like a fantasy from the outside. Realistically, these industries are only successful because they appeal to consumers by mimicking the way the average person lives their life. I bought into the idea that Hollywood was a distant land where magic happens. The US and western structures of capitalism profit off of the idea that greatness is external and fantastical, when in fact we all have the same potential. The 1% in power maintains their authority by creating illusions that hold people’s minds back from recognizing their own potential. Acceptance of external validation and fear of rejection is what the education system reinforces. I choose to educate myself through art.
I believe that knowledge is power, but the United States education system does not aim to educate its citizens. The General Education Board was created and heavily funded by philanthropist John D Rockefeller in the early 1900’s. Rockefeller is infamous for his quote: “I don’t want a nation of thinkers, I want a nation of workers”. This quote dates back to the second phase of the industrial revolution in the beginning of the 20th century. Though the country is now scattered with abandoned industrial factories being repurposed into artistic, professional and residential spaces, the structure and functionality of the education system has not changed at all. Our subconscious minds are powerful. They shape our reality. Yet people have been fed such powerful messages throughout their “education” and throughout their lives that their minds are skewed and biased. Two dimensional beliefs are reinforced and critical thinking is so undervalued that maintaining the status quo has become more important than acquiring knowledge. In this frame of thinking, when someone’s beliefs are attacked, they themselves are personally attacked because they haven’t acquired the ability to separate themselves from what they’ve been taught. The subconscious mind plays a large role in this. People crave belonging but do not have the resources to connect on anything outside of their own beliefs. They cling to ideas that make them feel validated.
In order to become more empathetic as a society, we have to get at the subconscious mind. While art can reinforce one sided thinking, art also provides polarity. For every toxic song, there is one twice as uplifting. Both help us realize the contradictory nature of our existence. Both toxicity and positivity are valid aspects of the human experience. So when we consume art from a conscious and intentional place, we have the power to identify traits within ourselves and unlearn from our conditioning. Art has the power to reshape our subconscious minds and therefore reshape our realities. Art has the power to show us how much potential lies within ourselves. As independent artists continue to dominate the arts, they have more room to contradict narratives that have been normalized for way too long. Our art is sparking a psychological revolution, and it can’t be televised.
Trinity is a 1.5 generation Jamaican immigrant from Philadelphia. She is a multifaceted artist and writer who takes complex societal trends and communicates them through music and pop culture for easy comprehension.
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