Friday, December 27, 2013

practical education or why you should be a sculptor

Last winter a 13 year old boy gave a TED Talk at the University of Nevada about education.  In it, he suggests that the current American educational system is about teaching students how to get a job.  He then poses the question:  What if we made education about how to be healthy and happy?  He argues that graduates (and their future employers) would be better served if traditional schools focused on the following subjects:

*diet and nutrition
*time in nature
*contribution and service
*relaxation and stress management
*religious and spiritual involvement

This little guy, Logan LaPlante is not a product of the public school system and quite frankly, you can tell by how intelligent and creative he is.  In his talk he references a much earlier Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, one that I’ve had bookmarked for years now.  That reference gave him instant credibility with me.  You owe it to your brain and to your kids or future kids to watch both of these short talks.  Logan LaPlante:  Ken Robinson:

So why are you finding this information here?  I’m not out to reform public education.  I’m not advocating homeschooling or “hackschooling”.  In some small way I’d love for people to recognize that all students would benefit from learning the 7 points that LaPlante suggests are important in education.  I’d love for parents to understand that it’s not the schools’ job to prepare their kids for life.  If you want your kids to have knowledge, see to it that they are taught knowledge, but if you also want them to be well adjusted, good citizens and fine humans, see to it that these 7 extra subjects are taught as well.

But the real reason I’ve taken the time to post this here is because of the tight connection between the visual and performing arts and these 7 subject areas.  As I read through this list for the first time, I immediately felt a connection between the 7 subjects and the things I teach my visual art students. 

I know, I can hear your skepticism from over here, but I’m actually serious.  Sure, the subject I teach at various levels right now is called “sculpture”.  In that I focus on teaching students various techniques in creating three dimensional compositions.  I teach processes and skills.  I teach approaches and ideologies related to visual art.  At least, that’s what I do on the surface.  And when students take my classes, I’m certain that’s what they understand.  Their parents also visit on open house tours and seem to have the same basic understanding of what art classes will teach.  The most popular question on these tours is:  Will my child be able to get a job with this degree? 

I understand the need for the question and I see where the parent is coming from completely.  The obvious answer is an honest “yes”.  A person with a college degree can get a job.  That job may not be in his or her area of study and it may not be even remotely related to the degree.  But yes, a college graduate can get a job.  Art graduates can even get jobs in a very wide range of creative areas that most parents and students have not considered as being art related.  But the better answer to this question is “Yes, your son or daughter will likely get a job after graduation but more importantly, your son or daughter will be better adjusted, better at decision making, in better physical shape, and have a better outlook on life than they do now.”

Again with the skepticism?  I know, I get it, but let me finish.

No one is more skeptical than the average American teenager.  My 18 and 19 year old freshmen and sophomores often wonder out loud why they are being forced to take this ridiculous 3D Design class when all they want to do is take photos or design on a computer.  After I get over the shock that they are not interested in plaster or steel or setting things on fire with a torch or smashing them with a hammer, I try to provide them some insight.

On the surface they are learning exactly what the catalog course description indicates. There is, however, a super secretive undercurrent of tacit education going on as well.  I tell them that as they learn to critique visual art (to break down a whole into it’s smaller parts and to assess and analyze each part before addressing how the sum of the parts create a whole that is visually communicating larger concepts) they are learning how to apply that skill to any situation.  Artwork can be critiqued but so can people, relationships and opportunities.  Students who learn to break things down into parts and assess each part before considering what it all may mean are in a position to make well informed, intelligent decisions.  I also tell them it will help them win arguments but that data is still being processed for accuracy.  Relationships?  Check.

The scheduling and design of the projects forces students who may be unmotivated, lazy or skilled at procrastination to get to work and to work hard for hours on end.  They learn the definition of “work ethic” and they learn how to have a good one.  Not only does this make them great future employees, but it also makes them work their muscles, especially with sculptural materials.  My students sweat, they get tired and they get blisters and sore muscles.  They learn to eat protein by necessity.  Exercise, diet and nutrition?  Check and check.

Our department focuses on teaching students about using art to benefit their community.  Classes in all of our media areas give students opportunities to volunteer their time, talents and even produce artwork to help others.  Our public sculpture projects over the last three years have allowed students to help service and non-profit organizations in our area.  They learn the importance of sharing their talents, but also the importance of supporting such groups in their own communities.  These public sculptures are designed for and installed outdoors.  And have I mentioned our awesome outdoor workspace in the sculpture studio?  Contribution and service and time in nature?  Check and check.

Engaging in the creative process is in itself relaxing.  Regardless of the specific process and even in spite of the pressure of a graded assignment, there is a relaxing aspect to creating.  The aforementioned scheduling of projects and a professor who spends much of his time shouting “Work! Work! Work!”, however, will create a few stressful moments during a semester.  The pressure of deadlines, the fear of mistakes, and the very nature of a few of our materials will force students to learn to deal with those stressful situations.  Mastering stress management is crucial for the art student.  Relaxation and stress management?  An easy check.

That last one is tricky and it’s probably the one most likely to start an argument.  At first glance you’d think that religious and spiritual involvement is not likely to be brought on by a college studio art class and certainly not in sculpture where there’s so much temptation to shout four letter words.  Oddly enough though, my approach to teaching most sculpture processes centers on faith.  Not religious faith, but faith in the instruction.  My entire curriculum is rooted in a few core concepts that are revisited at deeper levels as a student progresses.  When students ask “why?” early on, my response is “trust me”.  This is not an attempt to avoid the question, but rather my understanding that at this early stage they cannot understand how the concept relates to a much larger topic later on.  When students ignore my invitation to trust, they are often introduced to things like gravity or physics and sculptures tip over or break.  If at first they did not trust, often they learn to come around.  The idea of trusting in something that doesn’t seem to make rational sense is a spiritual exercise. 

Beyond that, I would also argue that my students are taught the importance of keen observation and interpretation.  Students learn to really see what is going on around them and to record these events in a sketchbook.  Later they are given opportunity to turn those observations into images and elements of design.  Essentially they learn that things mean something, however you want to interpret that personally.  Meaning is most often seen in personal symbolism but to the keenly observant who is also looking for meaning…that has to come really close to some sort of spiritual or religious involvement.  I’m not saying its Christian or any traditional mode of spirituality, but there’s the general idea that something bigger is going on.  And with your permission I’ll go ahead and call that a check.

The conclusion here is simple.  If you want to be happy and healthy and you want to be able to find gainful employment as well, you need to be a sculptor.  

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