Scurvy of the Soul

In this scene from the 1960 Spartacus, the leader of the slave revolt meets several new volunteers, escaped slaves, including the house slave Antoninus whose talents include singing songs and also juggling. Spartacus's skepticism is apparent. Later on, Spartacus comes to embrace the singing of songs as a necessity undergoes a change of heart and embraces the singing of songs as a necessity even for a rebel army.

This little bit of byplay came to mind when I saw the recent heartwarming (aww...) story about the chorus from a New York city working-class elementary school that was invited to perform at the Oscar ceremony, and also while reading Kelly Tyler-Lewis's book The Lost Men, about Shackleton's Ross Sea party. Many have heard of Shackleton's failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent, and the various heroic efforts by which he managed to bring back the entire crew alive.

Well, not quite the entire crew, it turns out—if you take into account the second of Shackleton's parties, who sailed to the opposite side of the continent in order to lay down caches of supplies for Shackleton, whom they expected to be trekking across. Three of that party did not make it back.

Scurvy was one of a thousand problems Shackleton's Ross Sea party had to deal with—even though by that time it was well known that scurvy could be prevented by drinking lime juice, or even (I didn't know this) by eating seal meat. The problem was the expedition cut corners and didn't drink nearly enough juice, or some just refused to eat seal meat because they didn't like it. I like to think I myself would just eat the damn meat and deal with it (especially since food overall was fairly scant), but then again, I've never tasted seal, so who am I to judge? (Update: as of 2012, I have tasted it, and it's really not that bad.)

Scurvy provides a useful metaphor for a more widespread paradox worth keeping in mind: Cut back to the bare essentials, and you will find something essential missing.

This is the problem with the current mania for schools to cut out art and music programs, or physical education, or even recess. Bean counters may have a difficult time distinguishing such "non-academic" pursuits from mere amusement. But an academic program stripped down to the absolute essentials is like a diet stripped down to essential bulk foods—the brain is doomed to suffer a slow, wasting death, particularly when it comes to curiosity about the larger world.

Take another look at those kids from New York P.S. 22? How easy it to get any bunch of 6-to-12-year olds to buy into a program which demands discipline, and teamwork? And how many such programs can demonstrate clearly that discipline and hard work pay off?

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