"In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra." -- Fran Lebowitz
For me, the moment of despair and frustration tended to come upon me while sitting in the hot circle of a high intensity desk lamp, alone and blurry-eyed. Why do I have to do this? I'll never use it in real life. And indeed I know I am not the only one who hasn't factored a quadratic equation since high school, yet I do employ some of the philosophy, the hard logic, of algebra nearly every day. I was right about the specifics, but wrong about its usefulness.
No one ever pretended to explain to me how algebra would be applicable to real life, yet no one, even me, ever doubted that there was value in studying it. We chuckle at the Fran Lebowitz joke, because for most of us it's true, but we never once consider stripping algebra from the curriculum.
Usefulness, applicability, practicality: these are tricky words when it comes to education. Many of the things we learn in school are not obviously useful, applicable, or practical in the vocational sense, but we rarely doubt they are essential.
In the comments to yesterday's post about teaching creativity, Gwynneth Beasley, author of the Zeke and Ky nature book series, wrote:
. . . the school our kids are going to has a big emphasis on art but by the end of the 6 years all the kid's artwork looks the same.
I don't know anything about that specific school. I'm sure it's a fine school, but when the art classes are producing cookie cutter art, it's likely because the curriculum has been tainted with the curse of usefulness, applicability, and practicality. These things should not be the starting point for education, but viewed rather as its inevitable bi-products, just as the hard logic of algebra remains with me long after I've forgotten how to solve for x.
As a preschool teacher in a progressive cooperative school, I don't generally feel the pressures to teach "useful" stuff. Everyone in my protected little world seems to embrace the notion of an open-ended, exploratory art process, one in which the end result is secondary to the act of creation. My colleagues teaching older children, however, especially as they approach middle school, feel intense pressure to demonstrate usefulness in everything they do, particularly when it comes to art. Art for art's sake is all well and good for preschoolers, but now it's time to knuckle down and get serious. It's an attitude that often forces art teachers to focus on artistic technique over actual creativity. Art students in this environment often find themselves learning more about "useful" things like composition, brush work, and color theory, than about their own creative process.
Artist, teacher, and rattle snake wrangler Anna Golden from over at Atelierista expressed her frustration in having to defend art education:
Sometimes I have to justify art education to people, as a tool for getting into college, or something . . . but really, what's wrong with art, anyway? What if we all drew things and danced and sang? Would that be so bad? And why can't these rigid thinkers see that artists don't see what they do as genres or labels? It's just making stuff, or being who you are, or exploring. I so wish people could see art the way young children see it. It makes me want to think of a new name for this thing we do. Let's call it creative thinking, or fun, or learning, or Fred. That'll fool them!
She really touched the right note when it comes to my own artistic endeavors. More often than not, when I get to work on something, I start with the question, "I wonder if I can even do this?"
When I made this recent piece, for instance, it started with the idea of a saw embedded in the stack of books.
If you want to see more of my art click here for my online gallery.
There's a part of me that wants to make up a story about this piece of art after the fact, one that demonstrates my deep thinking on the relationship of humans to their knowledge, tools, and the creative process, but the honest truth is that I just thought it would look cool.
I carried the idea around in my head for weeks, not necessarily planning to make it, but one day as I killed time in a thrift shop (not an unlikely hang out for a middle class bag lady) I spotted this incomplete set of the The Complete Handyman Encyclopedia. I was struck immediately with the corny joke about an incomplete complete encyclopedia and liked the idea of my saw slicing into these particular books. While standing at the cash register forking over $7, I thought it would look particularly cool to sink four long bolts through them as well. I had no idea if it was even possible to do what I was thinking about doing. Or rather, I had no idea if it was even possible for me to do it. It was exciting to finally fire up the circular saw and lay into those books. Would the spinning blade cut properly or just shred the cardboard and paper? Would it be a nice clean cut like I envisioned or would it be a mess? How deeply should I cut? Is it dangerous to be using this tool for this purpose? Will the cut be too wide to hold the hand saw securely? Would I have to resort to glue? What kind of glue? These and dozens of other creative questions and challenges raced through my head even while I was in the process of angling into the tops of those do-it-yourself manuals. Everything about getting those bolts installed was a struggle. I cursed and sweat. I regretted that I didn't have a drill press, but only the measly 3/8" hand drill I've been using since I was in college. The paper dust kept getting impacted in the holes, and the holes refused to line up through the entire stack. I had to stop frequently because the pages kept smoking, threatening to burst into flames -- at least that was my fear. Would some scorch marks add or detract from the finished piece? I sweat and I cursed and I nearly gave it up several times. At one point there were tears of frustration in my eyes, and as I tightened down the last of the nuts, cinching the entire thing into a flexed muscle of kinetic energy, I experienced a wave of relief and joy and "I did it, you stupid m----r f-----r!" that can only come from being on the other side of the creative process.
Just making stuff. Being who I am. Exploring.
The other night I was out to dinner with a businessman who was going on about his idea that every child, whatever they plan to do with their lives, should have the experience of being "on the line for making a profit." I don't disagree, but the same argument applies to making cool stuff (which is what I think we ought to rename "art" if that's something we need to do).
When a child approaches our art table, easels, or work bench, she most often just gets right to work, although sometimes she'll ask, "What are we doing?"
The right answer is, "I don't know," or simply to start listing the materials at hand, "I see tape, paint, scissors, pipe cleaners . . .
. . . and trust them to explore, curse, sweat and struggle their way through their own creative process on the way to making cool stuff.
In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as art. But knowing how you make it is very useful.