It is difficult this semester to express exactly what it is that I have learned, and much less whether that new understanding is positive or negative. Time and distance will have to unfold for awhile before the answer to that becomes anything but vague guesses. Undaunted, however, I shall try to make a start on filtering everything educational and otherwise that I’ve been doing battle with this semester and last.
As always I had my own grand project that I was attempting this semester, quite apart from, and all too often in opposition to, the official educational agenda of my classes. Being the slothful creature that I am, I didn’t manage to do both, and did neither very well. Still, I may have learned some things worth understanding. The project of my own was simply trying to work out a question – is it possible to not make any compromises in meaning or quality of work and thought in the world of Education. I failed, of course, and that is hardly very interesting to relate. More worthwhile, perhaps, is a consideration of why I failed, and why it was almost inevitable. Is Dissonance inevitable and necessary? Why or why not?
Concretely, most of my dissonant thinking of late has stemmed from a fundamental conflict between how I think and how the realm of Education would have me think, and my stubborn preference for the former. It spreads further though. In modern society we are so seldom seriously expected to take thought, and it makes things difficult, because then very few people do take thought to the details of life, of what they’re saying, and what it implies. I, of course, have been just as guilty as anyone, and more so, because I should have known better; but some things, I’ve found, can’t bear thought. What am I to say? How shall I confess my failure to understand in the sense demanded – to flawlessly and smoothly replicate a way of thinking about things? Of course, that was only ever my own standard, but that doesn’t say much – any standard that means anything becomes our own in the end anyway. I have nothing impressive or horrifying to show to explain how it was that simple assignments, things teachers presumably do almost every day, drove me to bitter weeping in the dark; to torrents of passionate words flung at anyone who would listen; to hating school; to failing classes I should have loved; that my writing has disintegrated past mediocrity; to having only dissonance and chaos to show for hundreds of hours of thought and study. No example that I can give will explain to those who don’t know already. It all hinges upon taking thought, and what happens when we try to do so in areas that won’t bear it. To systematize non-systems.
For a writing class last semester one of my stories was based on my experiences with Evangelical youth conferences – 1300 teens in a room, a rock band, perpetual sermons on why it’s bad to do and think stuff it had never in my life occurred to me to think or do. In the course of the story, I wrote of the main character that she was “attempting to mean the song at hand,” not the most elegant turn of phrase, to be sure, but perfectly straight-forward. Or so I thought, until I got back 25 copies from my classmates, all with that sentence underlined, asking what I had meant. Wasn’t it self-evident? I wondered. Apparently not, so I tried to explain, but it’s not a thing easily explainable, and eventually I shrugged, and gave up the attempt, supposing that I just wasn’t very good at expressing certain things.
In a vast auditorium in Salt Lake City stood 1,300 teens and youth leaders, eyes closed and hands upraised, singing to the sappy chords of modern Christian rock:
People, we believe that
God is bigger than the air we breath, this world we leave.
And God will save the day, and all will say:
My glorious, My glorious, My glorious…
And on and on in that vein. There, among the crowd, I tried and tried to concentrate on what we were singing, and mean it. Discussing the story (slightly modified from actual experience), my classmates thought that was just a way of trying to blend in with the crowd – a kind of peer pressure, but that’s not it. It’s more like trying to tune the soul to resonate in harmony with its surroundings. Internal and external must be consistent, and I have generally supposed that if my reactions to something are in conflict with everyone around me, it’s probably a fault in myself. So that’s what I did, twice a week every week, and sometimes every day at things like the youth conference mentioned above, for probably five years. It rarely worked, and led to a lot of dissonance because I didn’t believe in many of the things said and sung.
“Attempting to mean” things is what I always do, in nearly every situation, and explains a great deal of my frustration with school, various outreach events I’ve been part of, Evangelical “worship” events, postmodern thought, and other things besides. Someone recently suggested that not everyone aims for internal and external consistency, so I’ll try to explain a bit more coherently.
There are different realms of meaning, and each requires an approach to thinking and responding to its content that is appropriate to itself. Most of those who speak so highly of “critical thinking skills” seem to forget this simple fact; there are some realms where Critical Thinking is appropriate, like philosophy or great novels, and some where it isn’t, like most technical skills, and some that may bear thought, but doesn’t demand it, and might be ruined if such thought is used wrongly. Art often falls into this last category. There are certain cues I use to determine what realm I’m dealing with so as to respond appropriately; I couldn’t say exactly how I learned them, but I am more and more getting the impression that they’re almost completely different than those used by many people, especially if they spent a lot of time in public school. How to determine what is better I have yet to find out; it’s certainly not easy, since in modernity we no longer have any coherent cultural consensus on what is due to things, or on what constitutes the “ordinate affections.” Be that as it may, I still try as best I can to conform myself to what I believe to be proper and just. In the case of the Evangelical songs, as they were about God and called “worship,” the proper response seemed to be that of prayer: give all the attention of which the soul is capable, and mean it, to the best of my ability, with all my heart and soul, until it resonates through my whole being. It didn’t work very well, not only because I’m dreadfully bad at maintaining that kind of attention (which is true), but because there was dissonance between intention and expression; between word, meaning, and Truth.
Some words are powerful enough to drag whatever they touch from one realm into another, among them “meaning,” and everything that hints at demanding meaning or rationality. An art lesson, when that is all that’s required, is one thing: it implies taking art, and making things. Not even creating in the proper sense, or not necessarily. Drawing, painting, sculpture; perspective, color, composition; these all belong to the realm of techniques that are mastered to give people the tools to make, perhaps create, works of truth and beauty. Any of them can be taught with no difficulty whatever, and have been taught so for millennia. Success or failure are gauged by a person’s power to shape matter to show their vision of that beauty and truth effectively. Mastering techniques, developing sensitivity to the interplay between internal and external vision, learning to discern what is most essential, training the eye to look closely, and everything else necessary to become an effective artist is difficult, time consuming, often laborious, sometimes tedious, and involves a lot of groundwork at first that isn’t particularly expressive. It is worth it, but that’s small comfort while you’re spending all your weekends throwing pots that collapse, fly off the wheel, or are too heavy to fire, and then cut must cut open all the good ones to measure their thickness. Still, all of that is hardly a mystery, and neither is finding appropriate ways to teach it to children, whether in the form of an impressionistic crayon drawing, their own pop-up book, watercolors of microscope slides from the local pond, a strange creature from their favorite book, or whatever.
Most people in the Education field, however, have a vague idea that looking at good works of art and making things are not lofty enough enterprises, and something must be added to make them more deep and meaningful. So we begin asking about meaning in the form of questions about a lesson’s “Enduring Idea,” “Essential Questions,” “Rational,” “Key Concepts,” and “the meaning inherent in the work of art.” Alright. But wait: in addition to History and Production (looking at and making art), we are responsible for Criticism and Aesthetics. Criticism can be weaseled out of by having critiques, which are rather enjoyable and helpful. What about Aesthetics? That is answering “what is art?” usually by looking at anything and everything and inquiring if it is art. It is the philosophy of Beauty become the philosophy of Art become some vague watered-down enquiry into the dissolution of a word.
All that, if taken seriously, pushes art teaching into the realm of philosophy. Which brings me back to looking for a response appropriate to the thing with which I am dealing. Teaching and learning Art, is it is usually meant, requires all the concrete disciplines of vision and technique mentioned above. History requires, in addition to familiarity with facts and periods, visual acuity, a sense of balance and relative importance, sensitivity to the frameworks of others that makes it possible to see their work from the inside, and the ability to choose only what is most important and can be understood by students with no previous knowledge of any of it. Criticism in described in four stages: Describe, Analyze, Interpret, and Judge. Description requires familiarity with a specialized vocabulary, and especially with the Elements and Principles of design, both of which we are blatantly forbidden to teach; Analysis is what I’m applying to Education at the moment, and is difficult, sticky, time consuming, and lends itself to all kinds of hang-ups and errors of not conducted properly; Interpretation depends upon a vast history of common visual literacy which cannot be gained by anything less than a sustained effort to “read” famous works of art from the past 2500 years; Judgment is the child of Discretion and the right to practice it can only be won through steeping in an environment permeated by greatness, submitting oneself to the demands of Truth and Beauty. Aesthetics, as Education means it, is nihilistic in nature because it assumes that any answer is as good as another as long as reasons are given. There is no Truth to which we must adhere.
That alone is is enough to make me despair of the project, but we must not forget all the ways in which meaning must still be sorted and categorized. The work of art must be dissected to provide easily stated Meanings that lead to neat and orderly Essential Questions, and be Rationalized for administrators. Students must create their own art which expresses themselves while adhering to the meaning inherent in the artwork they’re studying, while avoiding all religious meanings in favor of safer subjects like “society influences art.” All this must relate to everyone, from every background, with any disability or intelligence level, must be intrinsically interesting, and target every learning style. Finally, I must do justice to great artists in a way commiserate with the value of their works, and be completely truthful, while stumbling about under this load. I’m getting tired just thinking about it!
Difficulty, however, is not a valid reason to refuse a project. So I heave a huge sigh, and try to keep my balance: take a great work of art, try to find its meaning, look for a project that adheres to that meaning, fill in all the silly and complicated bits of Lesson Summary form, make a good and exciting presentation, and everything else. It doesn’t work – my brain twists itself up into pretzels, and I moan with a sense of impossibility and failure. The real reasons, I think, are twofold: I disagree with the basic aims the kind of art teaching described above, and even those who teach its use, and write books in its defense, do not seem to mean what they say in any true sense. I’ve already hinted at my reasons for disagreeing, but to sum them up: a) abstract meaning of the sort expected is inappropriate for teaching to children, whether they respond positively (as my professor says they often do), or not. b) most of the concern with ascribing our own meanings, the obsession with asking what art is, and the lack of interest in technique, beauty, or truth, are nihilistic tendencies that I disagree with most fervently. c) while pretending to cover every aspect of art, the mind-bending rules of this form of art education force teachers to completely ignore most of the meanings of most of the art in the world’s history, those which express faith and religion, because it’s so difficult to “replicate the meaning” of such works in the faith-free zone of public education. d) the reality of teaching and learning with children (or anyone else not hanging on my every word) simply can’t handle all this complicated, top-heavy, elaborate, “meaningful” stuff. the attempt results in trying to map something very difficult onto a scale that can’t handle it. e) my values suggest that it is a greater thing to express something outside oneself through the filter of one’s own self; everyone else disagrees. I hold that “meaning” as it’s seen in the educational world is not higher than Beauty, or even competence; everyone else disagrees. d) Relevance. More on that later.
It’s important to know what it is you’re asking of people, on the off chance they take you seriously. The most difficult thing for me to grasp, in any but the most superficial sense of intellectually assenting to the possibility, is that people say things that sound real, feel true and possible, have something solid and understandable in their creation, and are meaningless withal. It would not be exaggerating too badly to say that I possess by inclination most of the qualities that Education declares to be our duty to foster in students under our charge. Critical thinking? I will spend days and tears trying to determine the reasonableness of an assumption held by 90% of the modern West, picking at it’s foundations to see where it came from, why, and if it should have ever done so. Essential questions? Why else would my everlasting refrain against Evangelical thought be that there were so many of the most important questions that they never even think to ask, much less answer. Linking across disciplines of study? every discipline is linked completely, and throws light upon every other, for I have rarely had to deal with compartmentalization in anything, thought least of all. Meaning? What about the compulsive need for the cosmos and everything in it to shine with meaning until every aspect reflects the final meaning given it at Creation? High standards have been driving me near insanity whenever I come within ten yards of some fake Educator spouting nonsense that neither he nor anyone else cared about in the first place. Even relevance is important enough in it’s way – I try my best to see how anything I come across might say something about humanity, or demand change in myself. They want students to take responsibility for their own learning? There I am, charging off on a quest to find out about something no professor ever threatened to ask about in a thousand years, just because it seemed worth knowing.
Still, I am probably the worst student in either of my art education classes this semester, and not only because of my obvious imbalance in holding all of the above qualities in precarious balance, or my selective sloth in their completion.