Curriculum

I was reading a book titled The Little Schemer this afternoon, because a friend recommended it (sort of), and the introduction claims to train the mind in recursive thought while teaching things necessary to begin learning Scheme, a subset of Lisp, a programming language. No, I don’t program computers. I don’t, in truth, have any desire to ever learn how to program computers, but recursion in definitions and teaching is quite an interesting concept, and worth looking into. The book starts out:

Is it true that this is an atom? atom

Yes, because it is a string of characters beginning in a letter

Is it true that this is an atom? Turkey

Yes, because it is a string of letters beginning in a letter.

Is it true that this is an atom? 1492

Yes, because it is a string of letters beginning in a character.

And goes on in like manner, working through progressively more complicated concepts as it goes. So if anyone ever asks me to (cons a l) where a is baklava, and l is (with (warm honey) ((sauce))), I’ll be able to answer “why, (baklava with (warm honey)((sauce))).”

While I haven’t gotten too far beyond that, I’ve also only had the book since Sunday afternoon, and haven’t exactly been studying with rapt intensity.

But you probably aren’t terribly interested in hearing about beginning concepts of Scheme, or you’d be looking at a website on that, not Art teaching. Well, the connection’s going to take a while, so please (bare… bear… bier… ?) with me. Actually, I may never get there, but don’t worry – it’s good for you. First, recursion.

Even if you don’t often hear about recursion, I’m sure you inferred something from its similarity to “recur,” and that’s a good place to start. “(1)To come back; to return again or repeatedly; to come again to mind. When any word has been used to signify an idea, the old idea will recur in the mind when the word is heard.” Recursion is, basicially, the act of recurring: in the context I have been looking at above, however, it has a somewhat more limited meaning. For my purposes it can be seen as referring to “the act of defining something in terms of itself.”


As I was reading The Little Schemer and attempting to study Russian I was also thinking about how things are taught and learned effectively. There are, I noticed, about 5 billion more efficient ways for the human mind to learn something than trying to cram flash-cards into one’s brain, which tends to be an exercise in futility. Whenever I would actually get one lodged in there somehow, there’s no saying if I could ever pull it out in any context other than “please define X exactly as it was on your flash-card,” and who really wants to be able to do that? In high contrast is the method employed by The Little Schemer. I dislike math as much as the next art/literature/teaching person, and computer systems are a complete and utter mystery to me. I happen to love languages, etymologies, words, and scripts, all of which Russian has in plentiful supply. I’m taking a class in Russian, and would love to visit, while I would destroy all computers and go back to dip pens and handmade paper if I could. Nevertheless, there I was for the past several hours learning all about what a computer will do with the recurring function it was teaching me to write, and complaining to my friend about Russian.

But that’s not really about curriculum, is it? Don’t worry: I’m getting there.

As I was enjoying learning about how to define a recursive function for rember, firsts, and insertR and talking to a friend, it occurred to me for pretty much the first time: bad teaching can not only fail to teach (which is obvious), but can actually be destructive in the sense of making things more difficult for someone to learn than if they had simply picked up a decent book and taught themselves. It’s a fairly great danger, and I would hate to be guilty of it. It doesn’t even take that mismanagement; someone can be interesting, fun, and nice as a person, care about what they’re teaching, and still drive people away from the very subject they try to teach. In my (admittedly limited) experience, the most common cause is primarily asking people to learn in a way that is antithetical to how they actually learn, and forbidding them from trying anything significantly different, adding failure to dislike and frustration.

Memorizing in the sense of simply learning things exactly is necessary and positive. I’ve memorized, in that sense, a goodly number of prayers, some poems, hundreds of songs, and all the millions of disparate elements of language, symbolism, and thought that any reasonably intelligent person would have by now. For my Art Ed classes, for instance, I’ve memorized the disciplines of DBAE (history, criticism [describe, analyze, interpret, judge], production, and aesthetics), and their working definitions, most of the Human Commonalities; for ceramics, the approximate temperatures that cones melt at, things like that. Shortly I’ll know all sorts of things about creating recursive definitions. Some of those things may cause a certain amount of despair and angst, but one things I can say is that none of them cause the kind of despair that looks back on four years of classes, and sees no results other than a handful of half-remembered phrases, a slightly better grasp of English grammar, the ability to throw around terms like “past perfect participle,” “declension,” “conjugation,” or “adjective-noun agreement” with ease and abandon. In that realm foreign languages are almost unique. That friend I was complaining to took four years of Italian before he finally just gave up and taught himself with a good dictionary, a book in Italian, and some basic guidelines on structure and sound. His friend took a similar amount of Spanish before giving up and teaching himself not only that, but Latin, Greek, and a working knowledge of most every major European language. Most Americans just despair of learning any language very well unless they happen to know people who speak it; we haven’t the discipline or perseverance to learn them by pounding the flash-cards in with a hammer, nor the reasonableness to try anything more helpful.

I have this other friend who’s taking a class in Java. He has nearly despaired of its usefulness because they teach that venerable language, created for constructing monumental projects collaboratively for large companies, and teach it to freshmen in the form of silly little programs and applets that do pretty much nothing but look nice, making use of a vast library of specialized terms created for another use altogether. Learning it has been likened to building the scaffolding for an immense tower, then hanging a single ornament at the top.

Not only do those subjected to such staggeringly inefficient methods fail to master whatever it was they set out to learn, but also acquire resentment (this is where “I just don’t have a mathematical mind” comes from), a whole slew of bad habits, wast all kinds of time, and often enough go on to teach the next generation in like manner.

Getting back to the subject at hand

Which brings me to creating a curriculum. There are, as many of us have experienced, about ten billion ways to teach the average subject wrong. About half of those ways are worse for the student than not teaching it at all. There are quite a number of ways to teach rightly, but all of them require not only a good understanding of the facts and details of the subject at hand, but a good grasp of how people learn (usually born of experience) and an excellent sense of their subject as well. What I call “sense” here means not only a good working knowledge of things, but additionally an internal perspective of the proportion of things; how they effect each other and fit together harmoniously (or vehemently oppose each other). It is the parent of discretion in the area to which it applies, and is strongly connected to the perspective of time (history), but also requires a broad range of knowledge in contemporary matters as well. In art, for instance, it means knowing the cause and flow of styles, media, and themes through thousands of years, and across several continents, often from both the internal perspective of those who made the art, and an external perspective of modern and postmodern critique. Often it means relating specific artistic achievements to parallel philosophical, religious, or literature-based roots. Additionally, a good working knowledge of techniques, media, and current issues, debates, and changes, and their weight and shape in the light of history, are all important.

All that is needed to create a serious, academic, balanced, and systematic curriculum that spans multiple years. I, for one, am quite ready to admit not being even remotely qualified to do that yet. Perhaps in ten more years, but even so I doubt I have the motivation to do so. I’m rather lopsided, and far better at literature than art in many ways. My view it is strongly reactive against postmodernism and most of modernism; a fact which may be necessary, but is hardly conductive to creating a balanced approach to teaching those very subjects as they manifest themselves in art. I would need far more time and distance for that.

There are, however, a few people out there who have done it. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them could write such a curriculum with the scope in art that someone like, say, Jacques Barzun, has for history and teaching. It probably wouldn’t look like the average modern textbook; if I had my way it would be straight text with chapters, headings, subheads, and body text, nicely bound. Perhaps there would be some color plates interspersed, it being art after all. It would cover how great artists have taught, as well as what, and when; history, but primarily the flow of things and what caused them; it would spend no more time on the present age than on at most the three centuries proceeding (my sense of weight and shape in history isn’t yet well enough developed to give an exact account), and would be directed towards reasonably educated people, interested in educating themselves and others.

“But that’s not a curriculum!”

Yes, I know, but it’s a path – something to begin with. One thing I really don’t get is why there is seemingly this constant need to reinvent everything in education. Also the apparent desire to duplicate everything and have more of everything than is needed. Do we really need 10 reasons to teach art? No: we need one good one (see my first post), and that doesn’t even have to be complicated or impressive. Likewise, one really good curriculum is sufficient; three hundred is surely excessive in the extreme.

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