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Brian Till
27 Jan 2010
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If there's anyone out there arguing about the impact of electing a black president on this nation's African-… Read More.

The Dying Days of the American Field Trip


At a small primary school in Western Massachusetts, Principal Robert Clancy has taken a spot behind the wheel, serving as bus driver for the school's two remaining field trips; the third annual trip has been cut, and Clancy has taken the wheel to assure that the remaining trips stay alive. It's one educator's efforts to save a great, fading American institution.

For generations, the field trip has been a vehicle for bringing culture into the lives of America's young, particularly those from humble backgrounds who are much less likely to have spent time outside the classroom exploring arts, sciences and history.

Principal Clancy's situation is endemic of a far broader decline.

In 2007, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science saw annual student attendance drop by 66,000, a decline of nearly 28 percent from nine years before. Chicago Children's Museum has seen a 10 percent reduction in field trip business since 2005 and students seeing shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut dropped from 17,742 in 2005-2006 to 12,221 last year. Boston's New England Aquarium has lost nearly a quarter of student attendance when compared to 2003.

The decline has been brought on partly by rising fuel costs, the same impetus that led Principal Clancy to take up the wheel and save nearly $500 in field trip budgeting. It's also due, in part, to the standardized test model employed by No Child Left Behind. The law has led teachers to build budgets around achieving higher test scores rather than general enrichment. Field trips have been among the line items slashed most. Museums and other institutions of learning that have tried to mold themselves to the rigidity of test-based education, to give administrators the leeway necessary to justify out of the classroom, have had little success.

The demise will undoubtedly be furthered by the financial crisis, as will damage to the broader American cultural sphere.

Lehman Brothers, for instance, the now defunct Wall Street investment bank, gave $39 million worth of charitable donations in 2007.

Recipients included a Brice Marden retrospective at New York's MoMA and a Jackson Pollock exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum. In Europe, London's National Gallery and Tate Modern and Frankfurt's Staedel Museum were beneficiaries. Other major banks practice similar patronage and, though not to the same extent as the extinct Lehman, will undoubtedly have to trim their generosity.

The retraction of funds comes in the same year that American creativity received one of its harshest criticisms yet. Amid announcements of the 2008 Nobel Prize nominations, Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy guaranteed an American would not be receiving the prize for literature, telling the AP that, "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. ... That ignorance is restraining."

Compare our dwindling emphasis and lack of monetary latitude for supporting culture to a program recently announced in the U.K. The government recently launched an initiative that will distribute a million free theater tickets to Brits under 26 over the next two years. The tickets will be available to all, and for productions playing at nearly a hundred venues across the nation.

I remember a sixth-grade trip to Fort Ticonderoga far more vividly than any article or textbook chapter; and as a member of an undergraduate geology class seeing — and finally understanding — the complementary, shifting patterns of beach erosion on the Jersey shore; and as a 15-year-old, watching "Macbeth" from the floor of the Globe.

Reflect back on your own childhood — I've yet to find a friend or co-worker that can't vividly remember at least a couple of excursions from daily learning. A Civil War bluff or science museum exhibit, a trip to the air and space museum, or a state capitol building.

Before permission slips are permanently escorted into history, let's take stock of the significance of learning outside the classroom, of the value inherent in conveying that curiosity and inquiry shouldn't stop on Friday afternoons or after state exams in June.

Brian Till can be contacted at To find out more about the author and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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