by Bill Batson
If ten thousand years from now, alien archeologists had only the ruins of our village with which to judge us, what conclusions would they reach? There are several obvious assumptions they could make based solely on our local architecture. Our buildings would suggest that we were a religious people. Thirteen of forty six drawings I have made of Nyack these last three months are current or former churches. They would find that the largest structure in the village is a hospital, so the extraterrestrial investigators might believe, rightly or wrongly, that caring for the sick was a priority. Overall, I am sure that they would agree that most of our buildings were of sound construction and designed in exquisite detail with artistic flourishes: evidence of an enlightened civilization. I think old Nyack High School however, might throw them off. By looking at this majestic edifice they might conclude that we are a society that places the highest value on public education. Would they be right?
There are no human beings in my drawings. I draw only buildings, making these structures the only evidence of the achievements of our society in the record of our existence I am creating. I admit that my Sketch Log study is incomplete and terribly biased. I draw what catches my eye, has history that is known to me, or in some cases, is convenient. But the passage of time and forces of nature are just as arbitrary. In a Darwinian process the buildings that are most common and largest will survive the tides of time and I am betting that old Nyack High School will be a very handsome ruin one day. What words will this remnant speak in the distant future?
Clearly, the people who built the tower that looms above old Nyack High School wanted the building to capture the attention of all near and far. It is truly one of the most iconic vistas of Nyack. It can be seen from the hilltops to the Southeast and from the lowlands nearer the river. The addition of the clock would suggest that the complex was intended to serve a public function. Early guesses at the function of the structure would surely include a church or a civic hall. It has the same attention to detail as do many of houses of worship that seem to carpet the area as well as the pride of place that is normally reserved for the offices of government. But if the little green forensic scientists successfully concluded that this was once a high school, I imagine they would be impressed.
It would be clear to even these alien archeologists that the 19th century society that built old Nyack High School valued education above all other human activity. My drawing of the building that accompanies this hypothetical essay is not of the tower from a distant vantage point, but from the perspective of a student, rushing down the steps, late for class, made to feel small and intimidated by the scale and grace of the tower. The architecture helped prepare children for the civic and academic instruction necessary to turn the many into one. The authors of alien research papers might surmise that the community that built old Nyack High School was an example of an advanced civilization. And if they knew that the school was free to the public, they might even envy the ancient culture that captured in brick and mortar the highest values of our species.
But did we build old Nyack High School? The answer is no. Our generation built the new Nyack High School. What would the alien archeologists think as they were excavating our drab and soulless contribution to public education? Would they think they found our prison or a factory? If they concluded that it was a school, would they think that two different societies had erected competing schools a few miles apart, or that one building was for a group of students that were valued less than those who were given the more stately structure. More likely, they would deduce that they had uncovered the evidence of our decline, because the finer example of architecture pre-dated the generic rectangular, more modern example.
When Nyack needs another school, will we build a low budget box or a lofty cathedral of public education? We can take some solace in the fact that old Nyack High School was given to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), and not a luxury condo developer. But in today’s economy, the administration of public education cannot be accomplished without the cooperation of federal, state and local governments. Judging from the current national political climate, one must wonder if we will even have a system of public education in our future. I once thought it would be a radical overstatement to predict the end of public education in America. Today, I’m not sure.
In the 18th century, a tea party was where you would find people discussing egalitarian concepts like self determination and public schools; issues that those of that time thought were inextricably tied together, not mutually exclusive. In a letter to his friend du Pont in 1816 Thomas Jefferson wrote that America must “enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
At a 21st century “Tea Party” event, the destruction of the hallowed democratic institution of public education is more likely to be on the agenda: a policy that would more likely lead to the dawn of the dead than the dawn of enlightenment Jefferson described. If we abandon free and universal education, our landscape will be overcome by zombies, devoid of the civic and academic spark of life that animates a free society. It will then be left to the alien archeologist to pinpoint the exact moment when human civilization on this continent collapsed. But I am willing to bet, it will be determined to be around the time that we as a nation abandoned the kind of commitment to public education that is enshrined in the majestic tower of old Nyack High.
Artist Bill Batson, an activist and former NYC resident, creates up to five sketches and essays each week curbside in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Alien Archeologists” Copyright 2011, Bill Batson
Bill will be exhibiting some of his recent work at the Nyack Street Fair on Sunday, 9/25 from 10a-5p