By William Barbee ‘22
St. Albans as an institution of education is unmatched by almost any other school. The amount of required learning thrown onto each student is immense, with students being required as a freshman to take five classes, each one different from the rest. Furthermore, there are a myriad of class options that a student can take, from the basics such as English I or US History to more obscure or refined classes, such as Principles of Protein Engineering or a course literally titled Good and Evil. Let’s not forget the athletic requirement presented at St. Albans, a rigorous 11 seasons of sports, with one semester allowed as a cut to seniors. The goal is to keep the young men fit throughout their time at school and for the rest of their lives, which they do so seemingly well. With all these different options and requirements, it seems students will always be taught with thoroughness and care. Except…
The arts programs at St. Albans are severely lacking, and I’m not talking about the experience itself. This school embodies everything that a proper school is supposed to do: develop students’ interests by exposing them to different subjects. We see this in the academics and athletics, but why not the arts? To receive a diploma from St. Albans, an individual must achieve 17 academic credits (a credit is awarded for completing a course for a full year), 11 seasons of sports, and 1 arts credit (arts credits can vary based on the amount or type of art the individual partakes in). One art credit translates into: a year of Chorale, two semesters of art classes, or performing in two of the plays that are put on every year. While all of these put together may sound like a lot, examining them alone shows how insufficient they are. Most students decide to take one year of Chorale in their tenure at St. Albans in order to “get their arts credit over with”. Instead of learning and taking something out of the experience, most people lazily walk from Sam’s to the music room, where they proceed to either talk or stay on their phones for the whole rehearsal. Even though the students are directly responsible for their behavior in class, I believe the school has a responsibility to instill a curiosity for new things within its pupils.
The Lower School has a drama class for one semester that met sparingly, where students would learn the very basics of acting and theater production. They also have mandatory art and music classes that the young kids must take. One thing all of these classes have in common, however, is that they do not require much effort to achieve a good grade. To get an A in art, you have to show up, not talk, and pick up a pen, pencil, or paintbrush every now and then. While after taking this course you can say that you “did it”, but did you really learn anything from it? And furthermore, did this class spark any more of an interest or appreciation for the arts within yourself? The answer to these is usually a big resounding “no”.
People may be wondering what the big deal is about arts, as most children won’t pursue a career in the arts after school anyway. My response is simple: are any other subjects that aren’t turned into careers valuable after school? Is history valuable to you if you become a scientist? Or is math all that important to a writer? The point of school is not to teach students only what they wish to be taught. The point of school, high school in particular, is to enhance the minds of young people and embolden their talents to the best of their abilities. The arts teaches young men and women to appreciate creation and the beauty of the human experience. By minimally requiring students to examine the arts and by making the arts something you have to pass instead of a learning experience, St. Albans is failing to fully teach their students.
However, I’m not one to sit around and complain about problems; I’d rather spark new solutions. In New York City, there is a school called St. Bernards, an all boys K-8 school of which I am a proud alum. The current headmaster at this school, Stuart Johnson, graduated St. Albans and has implemented many of the things he learned at his time here in New York. One long-standing tradition at St. Bernard’s is the 8th grade play, where the young men perform a full length production of one of Shakespeare’s plays. The school also has required music and arts classes from Kindergarten to 8th Grade, and each class must put on a small original play once a year at various assemblies. This is a beautiful model that I believe can be molded into something that could work at the St. Albans Upper School.
Instead of requiring students to sit through a year of Chorale to achieve a one measly arts credit, I propose changing the system entirely. Students should be required to take at least one arts course over their first three years in high school, whether that be art, music, or acting. When students reach their senior year (preferably in the second semester, so seniors can prioritize school work for colleges in the first semester), they should be required to partake in one of three things: a play, a vocal showcase, or an art gala. The students could be divided into groups of three with roughly 30 people per group, and each individual has to produce something that benefits the group. These performances could be spread out over a few assembly periods where the rest of the students could admire the work the seniors had put in. While this is just a simple, first-draft sort of idea, the implementations could help to develop the artistic community at school.
The arts are very special to myself and many others on the Close, and seeing students who feel they are something to be looked over or skipped is deeply concerning. I hope that the St. Albans community reads this and considers revisiting the arts requirements at the school, making changes that so many of us would love to see.