He always held his pencil differently from the rest of us. While we philistines labored to be little Norman Rockwells desperately trying to make the faces we sketched look at least human, he glided over the paper with an ease none of us could ever duplicate. His faces were human, but they were in a Picasso-like abstract style. The noses were there but they sometimes overlapped the mouth and eyes and were out of proportion. Our teacher in middle school was not in the least amused and totally disinterested in how his mind was able to see the assignment in such a different way. All she could tell him was to quit “wasting time” and pay attention to the assignment at hand. He pacified her with some “normal” sketches,but quickly was back to his own style of interpretive art.
When I was a child, schools measured our IQs only in how well we read or were able to solve problems in math. Nonetheless, we had required classes in art and shop. As the years went by and I could see how my daughter was being taught, I was pleased to see that the range of testing had greatly expanded to include so many other ways to measure where a child excelled. People who knew their colors and could use them effectively got lots of praise, as did kids with more mechanical aptitude than reading skills. A few of us cannot even carry a tune, while others hold us in awe as they play many instruments and comprehend complex musical theory. I watched my daughter wrestle with quadratic equations but easily learn to speak foreign languages. She couldn’t get the x and y factors to behave but she could tame the convolutions of inflected languages, easily throwing verbs into that part of the sentence that was not normal in English, but required in German.
So the other night when I was watching The PBS News Hour, there was a program ostensibly on how art is being taught in our public schools. What it was really about, though, was the question of the value of spending money to teach the arts in the first place. This program focused on what is happening in North Carolina which has mandated that all elementary school students have equal access to art instruction, but enforcement of the law appears inconsistent across the state. Lots of talk about money and restrictive budgets and how bean-counter administrators are either laying off art teachers or hiring so few that classes have been shortened and have far too many students. As one teacher, who works in four different schools, said, “It’s organized chaos, especially when classes are cut from forty-five to thirty minutes.”
When asked what is the value of art classes, including music and drama, the teacher defended her beliefs that they are essential but was not especially strong in articulating her argument. She spoke about them in a generalized way to explain how they unleashed the natural talents and skills that are inherent in most of us. As she said, the arts don’t necessarily fit neatly into a “teach to the test” program. They should not be exclusionary but rather complimentary, not competitive with math and science classes in the long march to develop the many skills that our children will need to prepare them for their continuing education and long-term professional choices. She emphasized that the arts bring a different perspective and should not be shortchanged in classroom curricula.
You could just see the cash-strapped administrators who approve the curricula and have to choose between the arts and “practical” classes nodding off.
As the story ended, I said I had only wished the teacher had been more forceful in presenting her case. I cut her a good deal of slack, though, since she appeared noticeably worn out and worn down,as a teacher friend told me recently how she felt after her many years working with more and more rigid school systems that have squeezed much of the life out of education.
With the thoughts of modern public school swirling in my head, I had to wonder about so much that has been written in recent years accusing public education of failing our students. Although I have no answers to this question or any suggestion to improve current day schooling, I do know, though, that I see far too many young people who are functionally illiterate, have no grasp on simple math, and cannot articulate their thoughts. Something must not be getting through.
To offset the pessimism that was settling in on me, I turned to Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book Free Play: Improvisation and Art where I had earlier read some of his observations that might have helped the teacher find a more convincing response. A friend had recently loaned me her copy of the book, which expressed much of what I had hoped the teacher on The PBS News Hour would have said. What jumped out to me in defense of the arts is the word “galumphing,” which Nachmanovitch has latched onto in his search for what makes people want to learn in the first place. According to him, it is the “immaculately rambunctious and seemingly inexhaustible play-energy apparent in puppies, kittens, children, baby baboons — and also in young communities and civilizations.”
“We galumph when we skip instead of walk, when we take the scenic route rather than the efficient one. . .when we are interested in means rather than ends. We voluntarily create obstacles in our path and then enjoy overcoming them. In the higher animals and in people, it is of supreme evolutionary value.”
What Nachmanovitch equates with education is this galumphing kind of play, without which education and evolution would be impossible. To him, play is an attitude, a spirit, a way of doing things. It fosters a richness of response and adaptive flexibility. “This is the evolutionary reality. By begetting novelty, by reinterpreting reality, we keep from becoming rigid. Such play thus enables us to rearrange our capacities and our very identity so that they can be used in unforeseen ways.” To me, this is the essence of true education.
When this joy in education disappears, when “play” becomes “game,” when the free spirit of exploration, doing and being for its own joy is subsumed by a different kind of education defined by sets of rules, a playing field and a group of participants, then something ineffable, something beyond test score results, is lost in the very concept of education. If we go to this place, we have reached the rigid point and education has become just a set of stations of the cross to tick off.
In his conclusion, Nachmanovitch believes art can and should be at one with science as a guideline on our journey toward higher education. One without the other is incomplete, but together both can transform us into self-energizing, self-motivating, and self-enriching individuals. The arts, hand in hand with science, with their creativity, energy, and spontaneity “are their own rewards and are blocked when we perform for reward or punishment, profit or loss.” They bloom when they allow us to draw outside the lines, as my friend did years ago in sketching a face in a Picasso way. They blossom when a “teach to the test” goal is no longer considered a viable scheme.
I root for the children of my children to get the best education imaginable. I hope my fellow travelers will find the resources necessary so that education will include a full range of choices and that students will be free to pursue their studies without fear of being forced by economics into some narrow technical corridor that might well prepare them for a job and a salary, but will add little to nothing to their esthetic side, let alone their creative souls. The teacher in The PBS News Hour program could have summed up her argument for the arts in the simple lesson that “man cannot live by bread alone.”