Saturday, October 3, 2009

Artist as Student

I am very interested in the various philosophies and methods of teaching, and learning. I think it is important to include the "learning" part of that statement. When I read articles, or listen to lectures about the state of teaching in the contemporary world, that is how I apply it to myself. Someday I hope to teach, yes. But currently I am a student. Beyond this MFA program at PSU. I believe I will perpetually be a student of one thing or another.

I recently read the transcript of a speech entitled "Why Schools Don't Educate" given by John Taylor Gatto in 1989 when he won New York City's teacher of the year. Perhaps it speaks to Gatto's incredible insights and experience that I didn't realize until later that this speech was 20 years old, or perhaps it is sounding an alarm that not much seems to have changed. The reason the speech intrigued me so much was because of how universal the problems are that he spoke of (and to think this is even all BEFORE the phenomenon of the internet becoming what it is now!) They are by no means exclusive to the classroom. I think many of the issues he spoke of apply to our general interactions with one another, how we carry ourselves as people in the world, and definitely how we as artists balance learning from each other with staying loyal to who we are as individuals and cultivating that to the extent that it deserves to be cultivated.

I certainly don't agree with all of his arguments entirely, for instance I think some of his views on the influence of the nuclear family are a bit narrow for sure. Although I do think the idea of family is important, I also believe that it can be interpreted and constructed in any number of ways beyond what he seems to emphasize here. [I also don't think that "casual sex" is killing us as a nation, either. Oh brother]. But if you do read the article, dear blog reader, bear with him through those parts.

Since I know not everyone will endeavor to read this three page transcript, I will put some excerpts here that stood out to me. As I step back into this world of academia, this article is my most recent influence, and what has been echoing most in my head lately.

Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to an unprecedented degree; nobody talks to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the term “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.

What does it say that many of his arguments are specifically about early education, but that I find them as compelling reasons for why I decided to enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program? Hmm..

It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with only people of exactly the same age and social class. The system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety. It cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present, much the same way television does.

Perhaps I am attending in part as a rebellion against my own childhood education? To begin now, as I believe it is never too late, to do what I should have been doing my whole life?

In centuries past, the time of a child or adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventure, and the real search for mentors who might teach what he or she really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community

The following quote is particularly frightening to think about NOW, considering how what he said here 20 years ago has only been exacerbated by online social networks, in my opinion. People are more terrified of face to face intimacy than ever before because of their reliance on this. I strive to not become a victim of this myself, but admittedly do not always succeed:

The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret self inside an outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television

We do WANT it, don't we? I mean, I am sitting in a coffee shop writing this, and a very little girl just walked in with her parents and is freely saying hello to everyone, and everyone is noticeably uplifted by the presence of this little girl. Everyone is glad to get a hello from her, and I think we all envy her lack in inhibition in communicating.

I particularly like all that this next quote implies, or can be applied to as an artist. It makes me think of the issues we spoke of in Dan Attoe's class, about going outside of your normal realm to make yourself a more rounded person, and thereby a better artist. Here, Gatto is speaking of a more ideal educational philosophy used in Europe for thousands of years:

Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find arrangements that place the child alone in an unguided setting with a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great risks, such as the problem of getting a horse to gallop or making it jump. But that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone who has mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his or her ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is that of mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did in the Swiss customshouse.

So yes, after reading this, of COURSE I voted to go surfing for the first time in the Pacific Ocean in November.


  1. Great entry Jillian! Thanks for the excellent excerpts. Given that I have a masters in Education and taught for 2 years in the public education system, I love pedagogy and am disenfranchised by the current system. So this definitely resonated with me.

  2. Thanks for reading, McCalla. I'm curious whether you observed that disenfranchisement across the board, or if many teachers have just sort of settled into it.