Tag Archives: Elliot Eisner

bell hooks to the rescue

1 Feb

I know that doubt can be one of the hallmarks of good teaching.  We want students to feel encouraged to challenge and reconsider their beliefs, especially those prejudices they have adopted without much thought and certainly, by definition, without considering the evidence.  But there’s another kind of existential doubt, when we’re so hammered by all the problems facing us in the world that we end up questioning the centrality of aspects of human life that we enjoy.  Can we make art, let alone study it, at a time when it is becoming more clear that without concerted action, climate change could kill us all?  And, given that citizens (and voters) are making choices about future leadership at a time when they are woefully uninformed about politics, current events, and science, what is the importance of studying the arts?

I know.  I’m not so doctrinaire that I believe we can have a society without art or education without art. Actually the opposite: I have always had a knee-jerk sense that arts and music and literature education have benefits that go beyond critical thinking and the wonderful list devised by Elliot Eisner.  But one place where I have gotten stuck is on the politics of the arts and arts education.

Doing my class reading for this week, I came across the following in bell hooks’s book of essays, Art on My Mind: Visual Politics:

“There must be a revolution in the way we see, the way we look.  Such a revolution would necessarily begin with diverse programs of critical education that would stimulate collective awareness that the creation and public sharing of art is essential to any practice of freedom.  If black folks are collectively to affirm our subjectivity in resistance, as we struggle against forces of domination and move toward the invention of the decolonized self, we must set our imaginations free.  Acknowledging that we have been and are colonized both in our minds and in our imaginations, we begin to understand the need for promoting and celebrating creative expression.”  (p. 4)

And this:

“Recently, at the end of a lecture on art and aesthetics at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, I was asked whether I thought art mattered, if it really made a difference in our lives.  From my own experience, I could testify to the transformative power of art.  I asked my audience to consider why in so many instances of global imperialist conquest by the West, art has been other [sic?] appropriated or destroyed… It occurred to me then that if one could make a people lose touch with their capacity to create, lose sight of their will and their power to make art, then the work of subjugation, of colonization, is complete.” (p. xv)

I know with these words I am in the right course, I am following the right course, and that this conversation is vital, even/especially in the context of sociology.

Believe me, it is so easy not to practice, even when there is such urgency to practice, to create, to push ourselves to make work that transforms, or even just questions, the status quo. Every school district, every budget cut that reduces arts and music in schools is performing, in doing so, that work of subjugation.  And if you can’t imagine you can’t be free, you can’t envision anything better or different, or you are simply a prisoner of what the state wants and needs you to be for them.

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Arts, education, and the force of security

6 May

So here’s some good news. Yesterday I posted a link to this article on my Facebook page. It seems that the new principal of an elementary school in a poor neighborhood of Boston decided to add funding for the arts and a strong program of arts-based education, and he found the money by cutting, deeply cutting, security at the school. In the words of the article, the principal, Andrew Bott, “reinvested all the money used for security infrastructure into the arts.” And so the school began a turnaround, the students started achieving better academically (and, of course, artistically) and there was less of a need for security guards to be present at the school.

The rewards of arts education are many, not just intrinsically but in other subjects as well. There is no surprise here. What is newsworthy (of not surprising to those of us who have worked in the arts) is that students themselves are able at a young age to identify the benefits of an arts-based approach. One 8th grader was quoted as saying, “There’s no one particular way of doing something. And art helps you like see that. So if you take that with you, and bring it on, it will actually help you see that in academics or anything else, there’s not one specific way you have to do something.”

Freedom in education, what a concept.

Either this kid has been reading a lot of Elliot Eisner, or he’s internalized this relationship between learning and an arts curriculum.

As I was posting this yeaterday, I got to thinking about the metaphor. It’s not just that because the kids were engaged in studying the arts that the need for security became less because the kids were more invested in their studies. There must also be a correlation between freedom in thinking and freedom from the security state. Let the kids study not so much what they want but the way they want, let them engage actively in creative learning, and suddenly the need to have security guards on site drops away. If you force students to sit in classes and study for tests that will determine their level of accomplishment and achievement – the “one specific way” that most schools now, by policy, have to function, especially in poor urban neighborhoods – then you need an infrastructure of enforcement to make sure they sit obediently and take in what you feed them. In other words, give the kids the freedom to learn, and more importantly, to experiment creatively, and you don’t have to take away their freedom to think, or encroach on their freedoms by having armed guards in the school to literally keep them in their place.

So what are security guards there for, anyway? Since the Newtown shooting, there has been talk and implementation of greater security in schools to protect kids. But what hasn’t been acknowledged is that at inner city schools, there have been security forces there for a long time. Walk into most high schools in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Newark. And these are the schools where the curriculum is most rigid, most test-based, and where students and schools are deemed ‘failures’ if the students don’t pass the test.

Being held under armed guard and forced to study for a test that determined your educational and professional success is a major disincentive to thinking independently and creatively, and certainly to enjoying learning. Whatever happened to inspiration?

The point is, if all education hadn’t devolved into a system of having to learn for a test, and if arts and music education were a major part of every kid’s school day, curriculum, way of being, then maybe we wouldn’t ‘need’ security in the schools. With less curricular repression, there’s less of a need for enforcement. If students are motivated and inspired, not just to learn but to know that what they think and how they experiment matters, then their whole attitude about learning and about being a global citizen changes. A little freedom goes a long way.

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