This is an era of ever-tightening budgets and precarious performance in students' basic skills. It's an era of 'No Child Left Behind', although very many still are. Many inner-city schools are in disrepair, school supplies are hard to come by, and teachers are generally ridiculously under-paid (and often have to donate classroom supplies out of their own pockets). When push comes to shove, the school budgets get pared down along with nearly everything else. What does that say about us?
Actually, the state of education in the US bears eloquent testimony to our practical values. I say 'practical values' to distinguish them from our 'theoretical values', which are far different. Theoretically, we value hard work, education, moral rectitude, the flag, mom, and apple pie. In practice, we value entertainment. That's what we spend most of our thoughts, time, and wealth on. Entertainment heads up this list of our practical national values because that's what we worry most about.
But I digress. In an age that would rather cut educational budgets rather than inconvenience the population (remember those opinion polls and all those up-coming elections), Popular wisdom insists that the remaining dollars be spent on reading, math, science and (the often-unlisted essential) sports rather than wasting them on artistic frivolousness like fine arts, music, literature, dance, or theater. These things don't contribute to the gross national product, they don't enhance our position in international academics, and they aren't amenable to measurement by standardized testing. In short, they're a waste of time and money.
Sadly, this all-too-short-sighted (but fairly prevalent) opinion can have a devastating affect on people experiencing the midlife transition. I say this because even when 'practical' knowledge has yielded its harvest of career and income and all the toys and bells and whistles that come with it, the human spirit discovers itself surprisingly unsatisfied, overburdened, and yet longing for more. What you've gained and what you have suddenly turn into burdens. The more 'stuff' you accumulate, the more it owns you: it demands your energy and attention to maintain it. The promise of contentment that it made to you once upon a time remains disturbingly unkept.
There's a hunger in the human soul that material things just cannot satisfy, and it's only at midlife, when you've done a good deal of your accumulating, that you begin to notice it. It's a hunger to create as well as to be nourished by deeper soul-stirring meaning. Humans just aren't fully human without aesthetic and artistic expression. The famous stone age cave paintings of Lascaux weren't put there by some hired interior designer. They weren't zoological diagrams, blueprints, or productivity-enhancements. They were aesthetic creations that somehow communicated something far deeper and more fundamental than words could ever convey between human souls. Even today, they somehow very deeply touch our common humanity the essence of who we are across vast distances of time and space.
There's a longing in your heart to create and to leave something of yourself (your true inner self) behind that goes beyond mere reproduction. Your children are certainly your legacy, but is that all you want to leave behind? What's the price you pay in your soul for stifling your inner creativity? What do you ultimately lose, and is it worth it?
Furthermore, the undeniable longing that may lie hidden and unrecognized until midlife also expresses itself in a hunger to be fed with meaning that goes far beyond the chatter of the evening news or the talking heads arguing endlessly about issues that will very soon be 'yesterday's news.' Despite all the budget cuts and program droppings of our bottom-line-obsessed society, people still dig into their souls, distill what they find there (the attractive as well as the repulsive), and serve up the potent liquor of raw emotion in all the arts I listed earlier. Time and energy spent with the arts is only wasted if you measure the results in dollars and cents. But the value of dollars and cents doesn't hold up well against the challenges of midlife. Then it's the longings of the soul that take precedence: longings that need to be satisfied, otherwise something even more precious than life itself may be lost: your humanity.