Kurt Vonnegut in 1965. (Photo from U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division)

Kurt Vonnegut in 1965. (Photo from U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division)

My Turn: Kurt Vonnegut and the business of educating our children

Yesterday, I was looking over the usual Facebook stuff to see what was happening with my many Facebook friends as I do from time to time. There was a post from a fellow named Tim Payne which related a class project to have students write a letter to famous writers asking them to send something to the student as a souvenir.

The only writer to respond to the kids was Kurt Vonnegut. As a fan and lifelong reader and enthusiast of Kurt Vonnegut’s work this was no surprise to me. However, Kurt wrote this particular piece not very long before he passed away, and it had to do with the education of our children.

As Juneau and Alaska go through another several rounds of politically induced deep cuts to education, I figured I would pass along a couple of quotes from some of Vonnegut’s thinking about education as expressed in his writing to these kids.

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportages, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow. Seriously, I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you are Count Dracula.”

Vonnegut then suggests an art project, and finishes with this to those who participate: “You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow. God bless you all!

In the meat-grinding and awful process known as budgeting public funds, I would like to suggest that the school board take Vonnegut’s advice to heart. Make art education the very first thing considered in any budget decision, not the last thing to try to fit in if there is any money left over after providing the courses necessary to give students the possibility of getting a 9-to-5 job someplace.

Face it. 9-to-5 jobs started to go away during the pandemic and, now, with the spread of Artificial Intelligence (AI), they will likely go away altogether by the time kids in school today start looking for serious work that will pay decent money. I think it is likely that many will need to design that work themselves — as many are already doing — and also develop the sources of money to pay themselves and any co-workers.

Give our students a break. Give them the ability to express themselves with more courses in the arts. I am student of mathematics — and an enthusiast for all things about science, engineering and technology — so STEM courses are fine by me, but STEM needs to have arts with equal status in the acronym to become STEAM. In this way, students will have knowledge and all the tools of self-expression they will need in order to find work that will sustain them and their families through their working lives.

• Jerry Smetzer is a longtime resident and homeowner in Juneau, and an infrequent volunteer in Juneau School District programs.

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