Monday, September 06, 2010

Arts in Education: Boxes (2007)

(Having just recently posted a meditation on Arts in Education, I was reminded of this from a speech I gave about the arts to an audience of students and parents in 2007.)

Students may experience their days as a never-ending series of interruptions to real life.  They sit in a box to learn something called a "subject" until a bell signals them to move to another box for another subject, and so on.   Maybe they have a scheduled activity after school.  Then they may have some time to kill sitting in front of a box that tells them everything they know about our world today while it entertains them.   On weekends, some students' families gather in large boxes to think about God for a couple of hours.  Then it's back to the routine.    Does anything connect all those boxes to each other?  Can all these boxes connect to the students' "real life," not only at some future graduation ceremony, but now?  

That connection is what Andy Linn (Walker 2006) found in his various arts classes at Walker.   Now in a prestigious arts program at Cornell, he had excelled at Walker as both writer and actor in my drama class, and he had built a distinctive portfolio for AP art as a senior.  I asked him what I might say to middle schoolers about the importance of the arts in their schedule. He thought only a moment before he said, "Connections."  Preparing more than a dozen works of art in different media and styles for his AP credit, he was thinking about his art all day long. Suddenly he found that he enjoyed his classes more, concentrated more, because he was suddenly seeing connections between one subject and another. He said that they all went into his designs.

Now, he didn't have time to explain that part. Did he mean that he drew pictures of Presidents after he studied history? Was he putting equations onto canvasses? I really can't say.

But he reminded me of my senior year, when everything seemed to be coming together. That's when a poem by a soldier brought the First World War home to me in a way that the history book did not. As I was compressing vast amounts of data into a simpler equation, I realized that this was the same thing I was doing writing a poem, simplifying all my thoughts into the shortest possible statement of metaphor, "all this" equals "all that."

And he made me consider how all thinking is a matter of finding a connection between two things that don't appear to be related. And the arts are the one part of our lives where you use words, or designs made out of sound or color, to connect a feeling or a vision to an audience or viewer. It takes awareness of the world outside our little boxes, and skill to use a vocabulary of words, or a vocabulary of musical notation, or a vocabulary of colors and shapes that do more than just "express your feelings." You can do that with text messaging. Good art or music or drama or poetry is never about the self alone, but about enlarging the self to include others. The successful artist doesn't just express a feeling, but gets other people to feel it, too.

So, art isn't one box among others. It is a way of looking at life that sees through the imaginary walls that keep everything in its own little place. 

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