On Art and Education

It seems there is a never ending debate on the state of education in our society, which is by no means a bad thing. I think that is healthy or at least an indicator that we truly care about the education of our young. But the level of contentiousness makes me believe that it has become more important to win the debate than it is to determine what is the right direction both for our youth and mankind as a whole. Locally, in Wisconsin, with the roar of Act 10 still echoing, the controversial debate over common core now besieges the senses from all quadrants. And the constant drone of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)… STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM indicates to me that we have reduced our education system to, “Train them for a skill and get them producing.”

Is it no wonder that we are collectively saying, “Something has to change”?

And my perception is there has been a distinct shift to social education over the course of my lifetime. Something that is contributing to drive the STEM debate I’m sure but I want to interject another point of view. One that has been overlooked, ridiculed, and laughed at for quite some time by the great majority of society (myself included at times).

Perhaps I should give a little background on myself and the reason for my argument to give you a bit of context.

I grew up primarily encouraged to study the sciences. I was always told that I could do anything I wanted but any expression in the arts was met with ridicule and contempt. Consequently, I ended up spending over 30 years working in the Avionics industry having graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelors of Science degree in Industrial Technology. And except for the actual learning process I was never enamored with my chosen profession. It left me unquestionably empty.

I ended up doing it solely because I had the cognitive ability to do it but certainly not the passion. Deep down I knew I was an artist but the ability to express myself had been suppressed. My path to artistic expression along with my life experience has clearly shown me where we can improve life in regards to our societal woes both professionally and inter-personally and those improvements begin with education.

One of the common things I have heard throughout my professional life regardless of where it was or what we were doing is that there has been a collective lack of creativity in plans, solutions, responses, and reactions to virtually all business endeavors. Often this was emphatically stated, “We need more creative ideas!” yet the root solution to the problem isn’t just overlooked, it’s disparaged as a gross waste of resources.

The above stated need should lead to the question, “How do we teach creativity?” And what has happened to creativity in our society? The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking indicates that creative thinking in the United States is actually declining. A clear indication to me that we need to do something and do something about it now.

If we want more creative solutions, we need a robust education in and a change of attitude toward the Arts. An area of study that I myself have disdained in the past mostly because I was mimicking my upbringing. But also because I did not know what it was, what its purpose was, or how it could bring value to my life both personally and professionally.

I’m not proposing a monumental shift in educational direction rather a more rounded approach with a distinct emphasis on creative thinking within each individual – a proposition that avoids the socially desirable black and white grading standard. I’m convinced our desire for these grading standards are a product and an indication of our deep reverence for STEM.

If you consider my example, I began by mastering the multiplication table, moved onto completing the square in a quadratic equation, then finding the third derivation in calculus and I end up applying those skills repeatedly for nearly the rest of my life thereby joining the mechanical cycle of produce and consume. Good skills to be sure but that didn’t prepare me to create at the base level meaning of the word.

Intuitively I know that absolutely nothing develops creativity like the study of the Arts. Study and learn a new technique then go and create something fresh and interesting (for the student) with that technique. While grading can be based on the level of mastery of the technique the true education comes in exploring the deeper meaning of creating something. What did you find interesting about creating this piece? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time? Questions that do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer but they are designed to stimulate even more creative thinking.

It seems clear to me that we worship creativity in virtually all aspects of our lives. Beyond the obvious movie star or musician, just think of the famous CEO because of his innovative products or the rock star minister able to attract great legions of people to listen to him tell stories that are thousands of years old. And a close inspection of the scientific method, and the conclusions it has brought us, will reveal that it is those that artistically (creatively) apply their vocation to experimentation that are the ones that come up with truly ground breaking results that change our lives.

But the question “How do we teach this rare commodity called creativity?” remains. I don’t believe there is a simple answer and we may not even truly know what creativity is.

I do know this, if you want to engage a whole group of people in math, teach them music. If you want to elevate everyone’s attention to detail, teach them the visual arts. If you want more people to be passionate about geometry, teach them central perspective (at the right time) and they’ll most likely move on with a fervent eagerness to learn calculus.

In many ways, central perspective may be the perfect analogue to what I am trying to say. Most Art Historians will tell you that unlike other ancient discoveries in visual arts, central perspective was discovered in one place and at one specific time because it was such a radical departure from normal that it only came about because of prolonged experimentation and research. While I do not disagree with that, I find it subordinate to the fact that central perspective was discovered during the Renaissance and like the fundamental underlying message of the Renaissance, central perspective was disseminated freely to all who wanted to learn it. And we have been the rich beneficiaries of that teaching for five centuries now.

Central perspective could have been discovered in other places at later times had those that discovered it decided to hoard it to themselves. But the Renaissance was about learning and applying those lessons in a creative manner. It wasn’t about learning new applications of geometry, it was about having a creative vision and developing the tools to realize that vision and then giving those tools to fellow human beings so they too could create their vision.

Creativity seems to be born out of the free expressive exploration of techniques that stimulate the senses. The key element though is an active exploration of these techniques – it can not be learned passively. We have to engage our offspring in undertakings they can become passionate about and not just teach them to clearly defined objectives that are learned by rote.

Just the smallest experience in the creation of art teaches us to make concrete decisions as to why we want something some particular way. It forces us to contemplate more points of view and consider the results of our actions in a more diverse way than our monolithic produce and consume society typically trains us to regard. It gets us out of the superficial exercise of placing check marks in boxes and makes us choose a particular shade and hue (both metaphorically and in real life) for a particular reason and we will succeed or fail based on those decisions. But even if we fail, we eventually succeed as the lesson will come full circle and teach us the reasons for not doing it that way.

Earlier I referred to stimulating the senses. We must keep in mind that we have presumably mastered the use of our senses prior to being able to speak. But a modicum of training in the arts quickly reveals that we only attained a journeyman level of proficiency at best. One of the major benefits of artistic growth is we begin to understand that there isn’t a clear demarcation between input (the senses) and processing (cognition) like contemporary education teaches but a gradual transition with each dependent upon the other. I am convinced that it is within this understanding that creativity is born and flourishes.

If we look objectively at our educational system, we will come to the conclusion that we primarily train people “what to think.” Whereas the creation of art develops our “how to think” abilities. It seems to me that because of how we presently educate, true creativity is restricted to those gifted with natural talent. While the average person may never contend with the true prodigy regardless of the amount of education, training, and practice provided, they will use the traditional tools taught in schools today in a more creative manner if their education includes well rounded instruction and practice in the Arts. And that is the best direction our education system and our society could possibly go.