Barbara Ingram is the right school at the right time

August 10, 2009

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Editor's note: This column was published in The Herald-Mail newspaper on Aug. 9, 2009:

A relatively famous chap once said, "Life without playing music is inconceivable for me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. I get most joy in life out of music."

But no one remembers Albert Einstein for his music.

Of course some didn't know him for his physics either. According to Oxford physicist Brian Foster, Einstein was playing the violin at a charity concert where he was critiqued by a writer who acknowledged that his music was "excellent," but that "...his world-wide fame is undeserved; there are many violinists who are just as good."

Einstein, said his second wife Elsa, would bounce back and forth between his desk and his instruments, as the music helped him develop his theories. "He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down (and) returns to his study," she said.


Einstein enjoyed time in Western Maryland, sailing on Deep Creek Lake, a setting of natural beauty where thoughts of science and art were likely to mingle. And today, thankfully, we are coming to understand the value of both.

Perhaps 20 years ago, there was a feeling that education had lost its way, and that our scholastic clocks were being cleaned by foreign students who were taking the lead in science and mathematics.

In pop culture, Principal Skinner of "The Simpsons" said, "You know, for a school without any Asian kids, we put on a pretty good science fair." Our own U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett lamented that not enough science awards in our schools were going to students with "normal names," a point crudely made, but a point nonetheless.

Three things have happened since: We decided to do something about it, and began emphasizing the basics, particularly math and science. Second was the technology invasion, which introduced kids to a life in front of a glowing screen. Finally, this scientific, robotic world has shoved artistry to the back of the bus. Music, theater, dance and painting classes were viewed as frivolous luxuries and when funding got tight they were the first to get the ax.

So computer code is the new literature, Guitar Hero the new music, Photoshop the new oil paintings and YouTube the new dance.

Michael Thorsen, principal of the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts that will open to classes next Monday, is inspired enough by the school's impressive infrastructure, but where he really works up a lather is in discussing the growing cultural illiteracy in America.

Science without culture and mathematics without art are the equal of fantasy baseball -- you can know the statistics backward and forward, yet have no feel for the craft and flow of the game. And you go through life thinking that Bob Fosse was a catcher for the Oakland Athletics.

History and art provide the meaning that makes science and math worth the effort, and that's the importance of Barbara Ingram, one of only about 150 specialized art high schools in the nation.

Many children have magnificent gifts that transcend the educational "basics," and without schools such as Barbara Ingram, we are telling them that their gifts are of little use, that they aren't worth developing. Their voices, their eyes, their moves are "frivolous," especially when budgets are tight.

Thorsen ticks off a list of literary and artistic American icons and then asks, "Who of those would you lose? Who would you say shouldn't have been funded?"

In truth, it might be the students of schools like Barbara Ingram who save us in the end. In text messaging, hedge funds, Twitter and GPS, we are reaping exactly what we've sown: technological and numerical marvels that have stripped life of context, stripped business of accountability and turned natural wonders into mechanical compass points.

Thorsen said he was stirred by the Beijing Olympics. But it wasn't Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt that got his attention. It was the beauty and choreography of the opening ceremonies. And it begged the question, are we today getting left behind by the rest of the world in terms of culture, just as we were left behind 20 years ago in terms of science? And is one more important than the other?

Barbara Ingram is the right school at a time when it is needed the most. Just as students with talents in science and math or carpentry and mechanics should be allowed to flourish, so, too, should students with talents in the arts, for their vocation is no less valuable.

And one day, a Barbara Ingram graduate will almost assuredly burst upon a national stage and make us understand that without this community's admirable commitment to culture, his or her success might never have occurred and the world would be a poorer place.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at, on or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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