Earl Shorris, who pioneered the teaching of a humanities curriculum to impoverished adults, once explained how he came upon the idea: When interviewing a female inmate at New York’s Bedford Hills prison, he asked her why she thought the poor were poor. She replied that the poor don’t have the “life of downtown.” When asked to elaborate, she explained that “You got to begin with the children…. [take] them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures.” The idea that encounters with the best of Western culture can result in a richer—intellectually, morally, and even materially speaking—life spoke to Shalem student Dvir Shwarzts as well, who has just completed work on a semester-long community-service project for Jerusalem’s youngest citizens, “Education for Culture.”
“It began with a conversation I had with Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria,” Dvir explains. “I asked her what I could do, in the framework of my community-service requirement, to contribute to the city on a large scale. I wanted to be part of something that laid the groundwork for change, so that it would not only have an impact in the immediate future, but become self-sustaining.” Azaria, whose Yerushalmim party has led the charge for a more pluralistic, family-friendly Jerusalem, told Dvir that he could help get a new initiative of hers off the ground, one aimed at connecting Jerusalem’s elementary-school children with the myriad cultural institutions in the city. “Jerusalem’s children are privileged to live in a city that has so much to offer in the way of culture,” Azaria insists. The challenge, she continues, is to make them feel at home in those cultural institutions, so that cultural life isn’t foreign to them, but really and truly their own.
“Education for Culture” is based on a simple, straightforward idea: Every child in Jerusalem should have at least one encounter with the key arts and cultural institutions in the city. Currently, elementary schools receive a budget from the Ministry of Education to be used—at their own discretion—for “cultural” field trips; while some schools indeed use the funds for visits to museums or other educational/experiential sites, the lack of a clear, defined framework for off-site programming means that many schools simply opt for visits to sites that fit comfortably into their own worldview. “Education for Culture” addresses this problem by treating the issue of cultural exposure as one would any subject, with a vision, a comprehensive plan, and regular oversight.
“Now, the Jerusalem municipality provides schools with a list of ‘key’ cultural sites, including the Israel Museum, the Botanical Gardens, archaeological excavations, and the Bloomfield Science Museum, that need to be visited over the course of elementary school,” Dvir explains. “Schools receive a curriculum that proposes an order in which these sites should be visited, which matches up with what each age group is learning in the classroom. This provides a context for their visits, and makes them more meaningful.” Finally, the “Education for Culture” initiative includes visits from representatives of these institutions to the schools themselves throughout the year, so that students’ exposure to the wealth of their city’s cultural life is not a string of isolated experiences, but rather an ongoing, evolving event.
Dvir, who is already at work on his next community-service project, expresses the hope that if elementary-school children are exposed, at an early age, to the city’s numerous and varied cultural offerings, they will grow up knowing that their world can look different, and “they don’t have to accept that their current reality is all there is. They will internalize that things can be imagined into being.” Spoken like a true student of the humanities.