A Thousand Invisible Cords


Lauren Benton had been awake since 5:30 a.m., suppressing quiet laughter while listening to her youngest daughter sing to herself about the day ahead. The thump of drawers indicated that seven-year-old Cady was dressed and ready for her first day on campus as a Year One Explorer, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Cady was named for the 19th-century women’s rights activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom Lauren had first “met” on a visit with her parents to the Women’s Rights National Historic Park many years ago. The experience had made a lasting impression on Lauren, even more so as she became an adult and understood on a visceral level the crucial role the women’s rights movement played in her personal life.

Lauren was lucky that her family had the resources to make such cultural enrichment experiences possible. Nowadays, all kids benefitted from these experiences, regardless of their family’s ability or motivation to provide them. Every year, “Mrs. Stanton” and a myriad other museum educators visited schools as part of the collaborative teaching effort between schools and museums that had grown out of the integration movement, which began 25 years ago with an initiative by the Center for the Future of Museums. These school visits were “advance organizers,” providing practical and substantive context for the countless field trips made each year to the museums themselves. Educators now understood how personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts affected learning. With the help of museology scholars such as John Falk, Lynn Dierking, and George Hein, among others, they had finally abandoned the behaviorist methods that had once displaced John Dewey’s theories. Constructivism, first applied in museum education programs, now guided even mainstream education.

The slow death of the old behaviorist model began with backlash against the No Child Left Behind Act adopted at the turn of the 21st century and was hastened by the Every Child Succeeds Act adopted in 2015. Its fate was sealed by the 2016 presidential campaign in which it became frighteningly apparent that formal education in America had failed. The Republican Party’s presidential nomination process that year had been the catalyst for a complete overhaul of the education system in the United States. In a moment of humble leadership not seen since General Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783, Congress set aside partisan politics and adopted the Lifelong Learning Act in 2019. It resulted in a completely new model of education in America in which the nation’s robust museum community played an integral part. The result had been the creation of institutions such as the Niagara River Academy, where Cady would begin her formal education later this morning.

Lauren’s husband rolled over in the bed next to her and brushed her hair behind her ear, smiling.

“Good morning, Love. Have you been listening to Cady?”

“Good morning, Handsome,” she responded, giving him a gentle kiss. “She can’t wait to walk through the Academy door with her sisters and me instead of into the Generations wing with you today.” Jon Benton was the executive director of the Generations Program. It was a Continuing Care Residential Community for senior citizens, and it was affiliated with the Academy. The two shared the same campus on the grounds of an old nunnery on the banks of the Niagara River. Additionally, the Generations Program incorporated a preschool within its walls. Informal learning happened in the daily conversations between the generations, from which came the program’s name.

“I know,” Jon replied. “I’ll miss her being so close by. The residents will sure miss seeing her every day too. Mr. Diaz is saying he may audit her Year One class just to keep getting her hugs!”
Lauren laughed. “Can they do that? I’ve seen them in the upper school, but never down in the primary area.”

“Sure, the Continuing Care residents can sit in on any class they want, any time. We post the daily schedule so they can pick and choose. It’s a bit harder for the ones with walkers to visit the younger classrooms sometimes, just because of all the manipulatives and activity tables scattered about, but the teachers are generally very accommodating. It’s definitely more common to see them in one of the upper level classes though, you’re right about that.”

“I can’t imagine Mr. Diaz giving up his docent job in favor of the Year One curriculum.” Lauren raised one eyebrow.

“No, he wouldn’t. And he’s the one that coordinates the busses that take the volunteers from Generations to their various museum jobs in the area, so we really need him. You know, he’s talking about adding a tour or two at Oakwood Cemetery as well. They’re looking for someone to interpret General Porter, since Ed Young passed away in July.” Jon’s eyes softened, unfocused. Ed had come to live at Generations the same year Jon had started working there. He had been like a father to Jon, and his absence was sorely felt.

Lauren reached for Jon’s cheek. He cradled his head into her hand before turning to kiss her palm. Her touch always soothed him. It had ever since he had met her sitting on the purple beanbag chair in their elementary school classroom. She chose “lavender,” she had corrected him–not purple–because she loved lilacs. And her hand had brushed his as she pulled the green chair over for him to sit near her. “You can be the leaves,” she’d said. Like a lilac seedling, they had grown together. On their wedding day, she told him that he captured the sunlight for her, and that she couldn’t live without him. Three daughters and seventeen years later, little had changed. He still captured the sunlight for her.

It was hard to believe their youngest child was starting at the Academy today. Where had the time gone? Lauren hoped Cady would emulate her namesake and choose a career in the humanities, perhaps even history. Her oldest daughter, Hannah, seemed set on a path toward a career in engineering, and her middle daughter, Sarah, exhibited a strong affinity for the fine arts, though as a Year Six Explorer, she still had plenty of opportunities ahead of her before focusing her studies. But her love of art had developed early when she attended summer camp at the Castellani Art Museum. Lauren doubted much would change that. Of course, the lines between the disciplines had all but dissolved in the decades since the Great Integration. Now it was generally understood that no discipline was discrete. Naturalist John Muir’s words had provided inspiration to those attending the Center for the Future of Museums’ 2017 National Convention on Integration of Museology and Pedagogy. That inspiration now inscribed the campus entryway at the Academy: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”

Despite this understanding, students at the Academy, young and old alike, generally tended to ground their learning in one of the traditional fields, while fostering links to others as their interests led them. For instance, although Hannah loved mathematics, she was also a talented flutist. She found the patterns in both to be intuitive and predictable. They made sense to her, and they helped her to make sense of her world. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to choose between one or the other as she entered her Final Phase at the Academy. This year she would be completing an independent study joint internship with the Buffalo Museum of Science and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra that leveraged both her mathematics and musical backgrounds to creatively solve problems. Such joint projects were common among upper level students at the Academy, whose academic advisors helped them tailor learning plans geared toward their unique interests.

Funding for these endeavors was possible because all of the school districts in the western half of Niagara County had integrated decades ago into one large district, housed on the sprawling campus of the Academy. With streamlined administration and facilities, tax dollars could be reallocated to produce a completely revamped curriculum that included a collaboration between the Academy and all the museums in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Differentiated learning plans for each student were possible not only because there were sufficient numbers of like-minded students to fill classrooms, but also because the opportunities with area museums made independent study possible. The result was both a cohesive and a diverse academic community.

As a result of the Lifelong Learning Act, most schools in the United States had undertaken similar sweeping changes in collaboration with cultural institutions. Teaching standards that had focused too heavily on standardized assessments and STEM disciplines were blamed for the political turmoil in which the United States found itself in 2016. The time was ripe for the initiative to integrate museums and traditional schools that had been proposed at the Center for the Future of Museums 2017 national convention. The movement was known as the Great Integration. Desperate for a workable solution to the education crisis, legislators had leveraged the existing resources of America’s museums, and along with them, their museum education programs. Schoolteachers, exhausted and frustrated after years of standardized testing, were only too happy to endorse the movement. Gone were the days of didactic learning in sterile, static environments. Funding for the arts, music, history, and other humanities was restored.

Lauren worked as the museum education liaison at the Academy. She supervised a staff that coordinated the many links between the local museum community and the school. Academy teachers worked with museum educators to streamline museum visits aligned with school curriculum. Lauren also supervised the extensive internship program by which upper level students were placed with area museums. Their volunteer hours and youthful enthusiasm had been a boon to the heritage tourism industry in this former agricultural county. They complemented the quieter and wiser docents coming from area senior centers such as the Generations program.

Working together, schools, museums, and economic development agencies had managed to bring a renaissance to the area, in part through heritage tourism. Decaying neighborhoods were revitalized with tourist dollars, and area museums helped restore a sense of pride to the struggling county. Indeed, as Muir said, the various components of life in the Niagara Region were “bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken.”

This morning, Lauren would be coordinating visits from the education director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. A teacher in the academy’s pre-med exploratory program was planning to enhance her students’ observation skills–so that they could better detect symptoms in their patients–by teaching them how to observe the sometimes elusive details of fine art. Just as Lauren’s mind began to spin with the details of her day ahead, Cady popped her head around their bedroom door.
“Is it breakfast time yet? I’m ready!”
* * *
An hour later, Cady and Lauren walked past the Muir inscription into the Great Hall, adorned with sculpture and paintings. Costumed interpreters were dispersed throughout, standing alongside temporary informational tables describing the various internships and experiential learning opportunities available with their organizations.

“Mom, come see our exhibit!” Sarah entreated, pulling Lauren toward the east wall where Sarah had helped choose works for a Great Lakes Wildlife exhibit as part of a summer camp program combining art and living organisms.

Just then, a Continental soldier standing near a Calder mobile called out, “Miss Cady!” “General Porter, at your service. Welcome to school, my dear.”

Cady ran over and threw her arms around the man. “Can I come work at your museum today, Mr. Diaz? I’m gonna be a historian when I grow up!”

“Bye Mom,” Hannah waved. She disappeared through the archway leading to the courtyard, recently redesigned by a joint effort between the Academy’s landscape architecture class and the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden.

“Mom, over here!” Sarah drew Lauren’s attention back to the east wall.
Lauren’s heart swelled.