June 30, 2013
My kids and I live in a high-rise, so we often take to the communal hallway for catch and cartwheels and, on occasion, touch football. I'd bring sidewalk chalk if the hall weren't carpeted.
The only thing keeping me from shedding guilty tears over this pitiful excuse for a front yard is that Lake Michigan is parked majestically where an actual front yard would be. Millennium Park is a bike ride away.
If I'm not going to give my kids the life they would enjoy in the suburbs, I've decided I'm going to give them the life they couldn't enjoy in the suburbs. So we chase bubbles at Buckingham Fountain and run up and down the hills at Museum Campus and absorb, as often as we can, the beauty and the humanity in our city's public spaces.
Now that they're old enough to sit still for longer than nine minutes, I've started rolling in the occasional cultural event too, and not just the kid-size variety. "Disney on Ice" is definitely a choreographed spectacle, but I'll be darned if it counts as live theater.
So we're venturing out a bit, sipping from the well of high culture. The results have been mixed.
The Lyric Opera offered a condensed version of "Don Pasquale" a few months ago, staging a Sunday afternoon production at the Civic Opera House. We hopped in a cab and took our seats.
I spent the next 80 minutes wondering how I would unravel, afterward, the tangle of misogyny and deception and wife-swapping for my daughter, who stared wide-eyed at the unfolding tale of a rich, miserly bachelor and his fake marriage.
More recently we took in the Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. The tap dancing was fantastic. The Chinese stereotypes were regrettable.
In short, I'm willfully exposing them to stuff I wouldn't tolerate for 30 seconds were it churned out by Nickelodeon. I've chucked Barbie DVDs for lesser offenses.
Of course, the value of the arts lies largely in how many voices echo within, including those from generations and sensibilities long past. A 1934 musical can't be judged by contemporary standards. But is it appropriate for contemporary kids?
I ran this by Sunil Iyengar, research director at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Is there inherent value, I asked, in offering kids a variety of cultural experiences, even if you're not on board with some of the messages they encounter along the way? The research implies yes.
"Participation in the arts is the single highest predictor of civic engagement," Iyengar says, "whether someone is likely to volunteer in their community or take part in a community group meeting or be otherwise socially engaged."
That's across socioeconomic groups.
A 2012 report summarizing four longitudinal studies of low-income middle and high school students shows those with high levels of arts engagement through elementary school have higher test scores in science, reading and math and higher overall grade point averages than students who lacked similar experiences.
After graduation, they're more likely to earn a bachelor's degree, more likely to read a newspaper at least once a week and more likely to register to vote.
No one is claiming a direct cause and effect. "Opera at 7" does not equal "model citizen at 23."
"We have to be very cautious from a research standpoint," Iyengar says. "But participation early and often in the arts can be a conduit to these kinds of later outcomes. Reading the tea leaves from all this data indicates that 21st-century workforce skills — innovative thinking, critical inquiry, socialization — can stem from the arts."
I see the same skills taking root during our post-cultural outing conversations, which are richer and longer and more challenging than anything we have after, say, "Monsters University."
And those conversations have to count for a lot, I hope. Even if they happen in a hallway.
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