Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Problem With Education

photo credit: foundphotosl
In order to graduate from high school in Utah, a student must have 24 credits, 18 of which are "core" class requirements.  The course requirements are as follows:  4.0 credits of Language Arts, 3.0 credits of Math, 3.0 credits of science, 2.5 credits of Social Studies, 2.0 credits in Physical Education, and 3.5 credits in Directed Coursework (which includes 1.5 credits in the Arts).  The additional six credits are "electives."  

Utah gubernatorial candidate, Peter Corroon, would like to change that.  He has proposed adding another year of math and reducing electives.  Students would be required to have 22 credits in "core" subjects.  He suggests that his plan will make graduates more employable.  And I have to admit, he may be right . . . if you're looking to hire a mathematician.  Unfortunately, Corroon fails to realize that what education needs today is greater diversity, not a one-size-fits-all solution.  

I do agree with Corroon that there's room for improvement in our math and science programs.  If you study the greatest periods of human advancement (i.e. Ancient Egypt, Classic Greece, Renaissance Italy, The Age of Enlightment, etc.) you'll see that math and science were highly valued by the cultures of the time.  But you'll notice something else . . . art was also of great and perhaps equal value.  If we take a lesson from history, we'll see it's important to diversify education. 

Let's consider, for a moment, Renaissance Italy of the 1400s.  Here we find an explosion of growth and creativity in the arts and sciences, as well as many other disciplines.  There are many possible reasons for this, but one primary cause was the philosophy of Humanism, or the belief that humans have limitless potential for advancement.  This idea sparked a thirst for learning and creativity in all areas of knowledge.  As Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472) put it, "a man can do all things if he will."  The Renaissance became a time of polymaths, or people who were experts in many skill areas.  The most famous polymath is Leonardo da Vinci.  He exemplifies what I consider a "well-educated" person with a broad repertoire of profound skills.  Truly, the Renaissance was a testament of the potential of humans to learn and advance. 

Today, you could argue that things are different, that in our "tech-driven" society workers need to be more specialized and there's no need for polymaths.  And there's some truth to that . . . on an individual basis.  Statistics do show that the more education you have, the more specialized you become, and the more likely you are to be employed.  However, from a sociological perspective, I believe it's dangerous to funnel all of our students into mathematics and science.  I believe the idea of the polymath--ideal yet unrealistic for all individuals--is absolutely applicable and necessary for all societies and civilizations.  It's akin to the theory of evolution, which suggests that the more diverse the gene pool, the more likely a species will adapt and survive.  In a similar fashion, the more diverse the talent pool, the more likely we will see the development of meaningful ideas and products, and the more likely our economy will grow and our societies advance.

It seems to me that the best solution for fixing education is not to force students to take more math and science, but to provide greater opportunities for specialization in a wider range of areas while still in high school.  We need to help our youth discover their talents sooner and to develop them to the fullest.  They say it takes a good 10 years to master a talent.  Let's give our youth a head start.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

DaVinci Academy Art Department

As you may know, I teach visual art at DaVinci Academy in Ogden, Utah.  I love it.  I get to teach some of the most talented youth . . . ever.  Many of my students are leaps-and-bounds ahead of where I was when I was their age.  Their potential is amazing.  They are driven, they have something to say, and they are creative.    These are kids who have faced more than their fair share of challenges, and yet, they are still moving forward and excelling.  Art is how they learn, how they express, and how they live. 

Unfortunately, art is one of the most difficult programs to adequately fund.  The cost of art supplies quickly add up and the ability to produce meaningful projects is greatly limited.  And, with the economy crunch, this year is already looking tight.  That's why we are launching the DaVinci Academy Art Department Winter Fundraiser 2010.  Donating is easy, and it's tax deductible.  Small donations are welcome.

10th Grade Student Work
Here's a list of some of the projects that your donation will help fund:  Anatomy for Artists (advanced drawing, college prep course), Sketchbooks for Kids (creativity initiative in which high school students will gather art supplies and provide them to children in under served areas), college portfolio development, student art shows, Shakespeare Competition (acting, music, and visual art), student concerts, two annual student plays, FUSION (an evening of collaborative arts), and more.

For your donation, you will receive a special thank you from DaVinci Academy's art students.  You will also be recognized in all programs printed for this year's art events.

I probably sound like a salesman.  I'm sorry.  But I believe in this cause and the potential of my students.  I hope  you can too.  Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about DaVinci Academy or the Art Department Fundraiser.

Thank you!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Balancing Act Called Success

Photo by Brent Moore.
In my last post, I wrote about failure.  Now it seems only right that I take some time to address the concept of success.  I was about to call success the opposite of failure, but I don't think it is.  I would rather think of failure as nothing more than success in progress, a WIP for lack of a better term.

So, then, what is success?  How do we define it, especially with regard to creative works?  Is success always an accomplishment of great meaning and popularity, or is it simply the absence of failure?  Or as author Samuel Beckett suggests, is it the process of "fail[ing] better"?

And who or what determines the success of a creative work?  In sports it's easy.  They have games and tournaments, and you win if you score the most points.  In art, there are competitions, but the whole "win or lose" concept doesn't really work.  In my own experience, I've had paintings that have been accepted in one art show, only to get rejected in another.  In such cases, a creative work gets judged by a jury.  It's a process that works well for thinning entries, but it is subjective, which means that one jury's decision will be different from anothers.  And, honestly, that doesn't seem a good way to judge a person's success.

Pschychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues that creativity results from the interaction of three elements, namely "a culture that contains symbollic rules, the person who brings novelty into the symbollic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation" (Creativity, p. 6).  I would like to borrow those three components and rename them simply Culture, Creator, and Audience.  Just as each element contributes to creativity, it also helps us determine the success of a creative work.  The catch here is that each element, in its own way, wants to take all the credit.  For example, an artist (creator) will think he has been particularly creative on his own, but culture will be quick to point out that the artist's work would never have been accepted had not the attitudes and values of the population changed so drastically over the past 50 years.  And the audience (some proclaiming to be experts) will say, we found him first and he is only successful because we value his work.  They will go on bickering in such a way. 

I think the key to becoming successful in creative endeavors is to balance these three elements, to make them work together.  It's when the artist becomes caught up in the "bickering" that his success becomes shaky and fragile.  To illustrate, I'm going to present what I call my "Lucas Theory."  Yes, it might be a bit corny, but it makes a point.  It's basically this . . . the first three Star Wars movies (episodes 4 - 6 ) were good because George Lucas came up with some pretty cool ideas that fit within the culture and were received well by the audience of the time.  He had things pretty well balanced.  But sometime before making Episodes 1 - 3, he became "off-balance."  He focused more on himself as creator and less on the culture and the audience.  In fact, while defending Jar-Jar Binks in an interview, Lucas said, "I can't make a movie for fans."  But of what value is a creative work if it is not made with an audience in mind? 

So, I suggest that the success of a creative work can only be measured when we take into account the ability of its creator, its acceptance within a culture, and its appeal to an audience.  When we give too much weight to any one of the elements we spin off course.  We get a false measurement which results in a false perception of our work.  Balance is vital to a true and enduring success.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Fabulous Failure

When is the last time you were grateful to fail?  Seriously, have you ever totally messed things up and said to yourself, “wonderful!”?  Well, if you’re like most of us, you probably prefer to think of yourself as a complete idiot in such situations.  Odds are--if your mistake was big enough--you’ll avoid trying to do whatever it was you were doing, ever again.  But not trying again is truly the greatest, and perhaps only, mistake you will ever make.

I just read a fabulous quote by Madeline L’Engle, one of my favorite authors.  Keep in mind, Madeline’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, was rejected 29 times by pretty much every major publisher for over two-and-a-half years.  She said:
Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail.  If an ant fails, it’s dead.  But we are allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures.  And that’s how I learn, by falling flat on my face and picking myself up and starting all over again.  If I’m not free to fail, I will never start another book.  I’ll never start a new thing.
Here are a few more quotes you should take to heart:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal.  It's the courage to continue that counts.”  -Winston Churchill

“I haven't failed. I've found 10,000 ways that don't work.”  -Thomas Edison

“Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” –Henry Ford

“Failure is merely feedback that there is something blocking the path of the emergence and expansion of the greatest version of yourself.” –Mother Teresa

I believe one of the most important traits a creative person can acquire is the ability to take risks.  You must be willing to risk failure in order to succeed.

Don’t be afraid to try.  Don’t be afraid to “say something.”  As stated by Mother Teresa, you are in the process of discovering “the greatest version of yourself.”  Allow yourself the ups and downs of that search.  And allow the same for others.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Spirit of Exploration

(Note:  Please forgive today’s fragmented post.  If I were a writer, I would take more time to edit and refine my words.  Obviously, I’m not a writer.) 

When I was a kid, I loved to explore.   That simple desire opened the floodgates of my imagination.  As a child, I trekked across Antarctica in my dog sled.  I journeyed to distant planets as an astronaut.  I searched magical woods, surveyed the ocean floor, and reached the peaks of the highest mountains, all without leaving my own back yard.   As I grew older, my desire to explore continued, but extended beyond my own home.  I lived in a rural, farming town and had the opportunity to explore mountains and forests.  I discovered wonderful things like tadpoles in shallow lakes that formed when the snows melted and lasted only a few short weeks.  I walked the hills looking for arrow heads left behind by Native Americans.  I drove along winding dirt roads, just to know where they went.  Today, that sense of exploration continues, but it has evolved.  I find myself exploring ideas, concepts, and thoughts.  I ask “what if?”  I draw, paint, write, and then try to share my explorations with others.

At the root of exploration is Curiosity.  It’s a desire to know what is “out there.”  Children are naturally very curious, but their ability to explore is restricted by parental impatience, age, ability, and fear.  As children grow into adulthood, some stay curious, but many of lose their desire to explore.  Exploration is risky.  And when you have bills to pay, you shy away from risk.  You stifle your curiosity.  You settle into routine.  You become concerned with comforts.  You worry about entitlements.  You work hard for your home, your cars, and your flat screen televisions and that is good enough. 
That scares me.
And it’s an attitude that’s becoming more prominent in our culture.  For example, when I was in elementary school, astronauts were honored and shuttle launches were broadcast, but today, we no longer value space exploration as we did in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Why?  Because many think it is frivolous to spend money on exploration, on curiosity.  Not to mention, space exploration is risky.  People can die.  But when did Americans become afraid to take risks?     Risk-taking is vital to innovation and creativity.  when we take risks, we’re bound to make some mistakes, but we’re also going to discover some revolutionary advancements along the way.
Have you noticed we now live in a world where “standard” is considered good?  We require “standard” in our education systems.  We are pushing “standard” in health care.  We set “standards” for near everything.  But if you look up “standard” in the dictionary you’ll find a lot of words like “average”, “common”, and “normal."  And, with regard to the beef industry, “standard” is one step down from “good.”   Now, I agree that there is some nobility in trying to make sure everyone reaches a certain “standard”, but it can only be done by pulling down or taking away from those above said standard.  Standards restrict the spirit of exploration.  They limit creativity, and should be used sparingly.
I believe that compulsory standards may help a few, but overall they have a detrimental effect on the advancement of civilizations and the human race.  I don't believe that government intervention is needed to fix all (or even most) of our problems.  What we need is innovation (builders building what dreamers dream).  We need people willing to take risks in order to solve problems.   
As an artist and educator, I worry that we are robbing future generations of the magic of exploration.  We are teaching them it’s wrong to be curious.  We are pulling down creativity and innovation.  And we are left with nothing but “standard” answers where “exceptional” solutions are needed.