The Art of Thinking

Speech given by Hugh Atkins
Rotary Meeting 3/28/2019


My mission here today is nothing less than to convince you to begin to reconceive the ways in which you think, particularly about the foundation of our culture. All our aspirations and presumptions are predicated on the notion of education, of our imbuing generations of students with the knowledge and values that will allow them to succeed in later life. But how often have we challenged ourselves to ask whether those concepts of knowledge, success and values have stayed current and relevant? What are we teaching, why and how? For instance, why are we still teaching the same subjects that we taught 100 years ago? In a world that has changed radically, our educational assumptions have remained stubbornly steadfast. We send our kids to pre-school and then, if we have the resources, 20+ years later , we congratulate them on making it through Business/Medical/Law school. What other species spends a third of a lifetime before leaving the nest? And we think we’re the smart ones. Of course, if we don’t have the resources, we don’t even make it to college and spend our lives being reminded of the fact in lack of jobs, lower wages and even lower self-esteem.

Now we know that ours is a deeply unequal society, that, in spite of the rhetoric, we have the highest malnutrition and illiteracy rates in the developed world and that those rates disproportionately reflect minority populations. We know also that 9% of college students are homeless, over 30% are regularly hungry, 19% of high school graduates cannot read and many college graduates are still paying off student loan debt well into middle age. By default, schools have become major sources of food, counseling and other services in disadvantaged areas, an example perhaps of one of the ways in which schools will have to reinvent themselves. But a larger reinvention is required, a revolution in the ways in which we think about the whole process of education.

Some questions: why do we continue to rely on standardized testing when we know that it gives us only the vaguest information about ability and potential? Why do we assume that a school with high test scores is somehow a”good school”? What does such a judgment suggest about our assumptions about education generally? Why do we assume that college should be a natural conclusion to a high school career? What informs our belief that a student who is clearly not thriving in an academic classroom setting should be made to continue in that situation? Why do we emphasize play and creative interaction with our youngest students and then move away from those priorities as they age? Indeed, why do our smallest students have the largest classrooms?

The answer in almost every case is that it is convenient to do so. Financially and intellectually convenient. Education is really difficult to think about; there are so many moving parts and the human capital is so precious but so difficult to quantify that it it defies simplistic, political analysis. So, the tendency is to talk a lot about what’s wrong, tweak the model and give it a new, shiny acronym: STEM, STEAM, STUMPED.

So, what’s the alternative? How about going back to our roots? Way back. 45.000 years ago, we were playing bone flutes. 35,000 years ago, we were creating extraordinary cave paintings. There are researchers of language who believe that we sang before we spoke and if we were rockin’ those bone flutes, you can bet your life we were dancing also. When we talk about ‘the arts’, we run the risk of compartmentalizing a life force. We are all artists, even if we don’t know it; we have within us the capacity to employ the imagination to access states of being beyond our own. The Balinese make no distinctions between the concepts of religion, life and art and they’re onto something. We need to discard outmoded subject definitions so that we can forge a new approach to learning, founded in an organic understanding of student potential. And this new approach will need imagination and a commitment to innovation, both of which are crucial attributes of an arts-based education. You cannot be an artist or a student of the arts without empathy, critical intelligence, generosity of spirit and intellectual curiosity, all of which add up to compassion and I think we can all agree that ours is a world in serious need of compassion.

So, how do we get there? Let’s return for a moment to our youngest students whose best teachers rely on visual, cooperative, hands-on learning that puts a high emphasis on collaboration and self-direction. Why not continue these techniques as the students grow older? I last truly understood math when I was eleven years old, sitting in Mrs Peabody’s classroom in a tiny village school in rural England where I also learned how to sew. There were 32 students in that school and Mrs Peabody taught three quarters of them, ages 6-11, in that room. Not only was she teaching multiple grade levels, she was teaching different subjects, through individual instruction and profound knowledge of each student’s capacities and motivations. When we did all come together, it was to make art: to paint, dance and gloriously, to produce a play that featured everyone in the school performing for everyone else in the village. I don’t remember anything in that school feeling like work and yet I learned more there than anywhere else. So, why not make constructive play a central feature of 9th grade, for instance? Why not get rid of 9th grade? Instead of the conventional subjects, why not have an incoming freshman class embark on a four year arts-based exploration (e.g. The History Of Science; Revolution and Renaissance) Why not have students involved in the development of the syllabus? Whenever students are involved in an educational process by a capable teacher, the energy of the group is doubled. And why wouldn’t we involve them? Their brains are younger and already more potentially productive than ours are!

And let’s not forget that play is fundamental to our notion of public education; our problem is that we’ve turned the concept into competitive sports and separated it from the academic side of school life, losing, in the process, the key notion of children playing games. If we’re going to make the spirit of play key to our new sense of education, we’re going to have to use our artistic selves. ‘But I’m not an artist,’ I hear a strangled cry. ‘Nonsense!’ I reply. Years ago I worked with a group of actors to develop an experimental production that explored the notion of madness. The actors each developed their own characters and we constructed a narrative that made sense to them, if not always to the audience. The father of one of the cast was, coincidentally, the director of the most significant institution for the criminally insane in the country and he congratulated us on the depth of our academic research, particularly in the detailed depiction of the clinical archetypes that each of the characters represented. But…we had done no such research. Indeed, we had made the decision not to do any research outside of our improvisations and discussions, an intensely personal and communal experience that resulted in our discovering the mad versions of ourselves. And just as we carry the mad versions of ourselves within us, so we carry the artists that we are or can become.

Remember the Balinese: we don’t need to limit our notions of what art is. As I said earlier, art is a way of thinking, a bridge to the sublime but also to new solutions. A college friend, a mathematician, said to me that beyond a certain point, math and music are the same; after 40 years of teaching I came to feel this was true about all the traditional subjects. What is language if not the study of history and society, of music and logic? What is physics if not the point where philosophy meets not just math, but myth…and so on. Probably the most significant artistic achievement of the 20th century is jazz, a form that has percolated into the world’s consciousness so pervasively that we assume it was always there. Jazz gave us the world’s popular music, but it also influenced literature and painting, film, theater, dance, fashion. It was joyous, liberating, foot-tapping, thought-provoking, heart-stopping and it was COOL. Whenever today, someone says that a person is cool, I suggest they may have misunderstood the term. Cool implies self-possession and self-expression, a sense of achievement carried lightly, a natural insouciance and if I had to pick icons of cool then, obviously, they would be Miles Davis and Billie Holiday. After them, they retired the category. But, I digress. Jazz is significant for other reasons also–it doesn’t miraculously spring out of the 19th century air of new Orleans; it derives from the blues, that gumbo of Saturday night jump and Sunday morning atonement, from field hollers and coded slave songs, from spirituals and gospel, all carried on the drums that come from Africa but speak to America. Jazz is history, improvisation, culture created by a minority that refused to accept the iniquitous legacy of slavery and injustice but never shied away from its reality. No wonder that when the Nazis came to power, one of their first moves was to ban jazz. Jazz is freedom writ large and it is AMERICA. African-American culture is AMERICA.

So, why are we not teaching our children about jazz? Why are we not using it as a syllabus model? It contains multitudes, so why are we not taking advantage of its multiplicities? Because, we’re not used to thinking that way. I use jazz as just one example of arts-based thinking, because it represents a different way of experiencing the world, one that might jolt us into questioning our presumptions. Remember, education is the only area of human life in which we all think we are experts because we’ve all spent time in a classroom. But, as a result, we tend to think in terms of our own experiences and we’ve got to think bigger. For instance, one of the seemingly intractable issues facing inner city school districts is failing infrastructure; so many school buildings were built up to 100 years ago and they are falling apart; consequently, an inordinate proportion of school funding is spent on building maintenance. Why not think our way to a different model? To a sustainably powered series of smaller campuses in otherwise unused spaces, unrented offices, warehouses etc., linked by computer networks that can employ distance learning techniques. There are plenty of examples of initiatives of this kind already operating. It behooves us all to learn about them.

Just as we should make sure that we see what is going on in our own community. Five months ago, just after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I watched a production of The Merchant of Venice , performed by Delaware Shakespeare at the rte 9 library as part of their fall tour that sees them performing in homeless shelters, veterans’ centers and prisons. They are known, of course, for their summer production at Rockford Park, but it is this tour that is innovative, not only for the populations it reaches but for the lessons it imparts. I had never much liked Merchant ; there is a reason, after all, it is referred to as one of the “problem plays” and one of the problems is Shylock. Is he sympathetic or is the entire play anti-semitic? But, on this evening, in the context of the Pittsburgh tragedy, almost everything about the play resonated. The cross-cultural casting meant we could not escape into the assumption that the play was about jews and gentiles only, staging the piece in the round ensured that the audience could not escape the power (and horror) of the language and the fact that everyone in the room had such fresh, visceral memories of what Shakespeare called “the show of evil.” The performances were vivid and deeply-felt but it was in the discussion afterwards that one could feel the swelling of knowledge and understanding that comes from being part of a community of souls participating in a ritual of understanding, sensibility and learning. I, for one, will never think of the play in the same way again.

Communities of souls–isn’t that what schools should be? Look at Kuumba Academy, offering an arts-integrated curriculum to an inner city school population, refusing to compromise standards, even as they explore alternative approaches. And how did Kuumba come to be? It grew organically from the concern of parents of students in the preschool program at Christina Cultural Arts Center that when their children graduated from the CCAC program, their options in the public school system would be limiting. So, a group of brave pioneers, a community of souls founded a school based on the principles that they believed essential to their children’s education. Just imagine if such communities were to provide models for larger, national conversations about education, a full-on exploration of how to create an education strategy for a new age. Let’s go all 60s and blow our minds, let’s swing out wide and glide to the other side. I challenge you to think of school as you would have liked it to be. What sort of cultural experience would you have enjoyed? Now reinvent that idea into the model you would wish for your children. Make sure you have built-in flexibility, a capacity for change because the only definite here is that your school needs to be able to reflect, connect with and comment on a society that is changing faster than we know. Don’t be afraid to blow up the norms. After all, those norms have created the situation in which we find ourselves, and take it from one who has been in the middle of it, the system is broken. We need a revolution. Only then can we teach our children to begin to correct our mistakes.