Cherchez la faim
There is so little time to do anything frivolous these days. One thing I miss is listening to NPR. When I visit my relatives in North Carolina, I stay with Annabelle’s parents, two college professors to whom I am related on my mother’s side. They have two big-screen TVs but those are disconnected most of the time and the elaborate gauntlet one has to traverse to get a decent program on is above my pay grade. So I listen to WUNC and sometimes tune in to it here in LA via Pandora. One of the interesting programs I heard was about this topic, which arrived in e-mail form yesterday.
Among many shocking facts is the one that only 1 in 4 Americans knows that the earth circles the sun, not the reverse. Yes, that’s right, in the richest, supposedly most exceptional country on earth, 25% of the people are that ignorant. And we are not alone, other countries are offenders in this regard.
What does this tell us about the state of education in the 21st century (everywhere except Finland and South Korea, I guess).
Then while I was digesting that, I happened to watch Fareed Zakaria. He had on, among others, Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker and a historian. His books are just wonderful, and I would recommend them. He has lived in France and has some amazing stories to tell about that culture and his and his family’s time there, but has also written a magical children’s book that I would recommend if you know any 8 to 10 year olds.
He said something that really struck me as important. That, while of course we need the STEM courses and many technical jobs go begging in this country because we are graduating so few trained and qualified specialists in those areas, we cannot put the humanities, i.e. art and literature especially, on a back-burner. He pointed to Apple and said that largely Apple’s genius is not just its engineering wizardry, but its aesthetic mastery. The creative aspects of Apple products are what enable it to command the popularity and prices it does — not its technology. We will always have technically savvy people, but what will elevate the few is their advanced creativity.
I feel lucky to have developed some artistic skills that embellish and decorate my life. From childhood I could sing, draw and dance well — something both my mother and father encouraged. Had I not had parents that emphasized science and teaching as a profession, I might have gone into the arts and thrived. I find time to do those things still and all through school, I made sure I took classes at least in history and literature so I wouldn’t be a Joanie one-note. I don’t care about fame and fortune, I want to live life purposefully, but artfully, beautifully, consciously and fully.
I am not just a psychologist. I have a lot of hobbies. I go to a great deal of trouble to beautify my home, turn out imaginative pastries, paint scenes on furniture, plant a year-round blooming and fruiting garden, knit and crochet (I am working on a colorful Noro sweater right now that I will share in the future). This is a lifelong drive, a hunger for knowledge and a complete life that wastes as few personal resources as possible, especially time. It is something almost all children have naturally until it is driven out of them by misinformed, misguided adults in the name of very short-sighted expediency.
Where is that voracious appetite for enriched learning in our schools today? The entire teach-to-the-test movement has meant the impoverishment of the so-called electives. I attended public schools growing up and we had art, crafts, music, gymnastics, theater, debating — all were part of the curriculum as were all sorts of languages (including Latin and Greek), right along with the sciences and math. We had a pioneering accelerated English program for gifted kids that tied into the history and science classes so they were all coordinated (much like Waldorf education has on a richer and more varied scale). What I see now in my younger nieces’ and nephews’ textbooks in so-called California model schools is appalling: dull, soul-draining, pedestrian, lifeless. How kids get into top colleges and universities equipped with such mediocrity, is beyond me.
As I have mentioned before, my favorite niece, a 12-year Waldorf graduate, got into a top college and from there she went on to the top graduate school in her scientific field. She sings, acts, paints, and knits. She can make books, draw her own clothing patterns and then sew those clothes by hand, to make any garment she wants. She has made dolls, tooled leather, done woodworking; she plays two instruments and was a volley ball captain. All of this prepared her to be a scientist, because it developed all her faculties, not just the left-brain talents. In Waldorf Schools, the students create and illustrate their own subject books. That skill, from 12 years of learning how to sketch and paint the world around them by continuous practice (the way the masters learned their crafts at one time), enabled my niece to illustrate her work in graduate school while many other students were struggling with awkward computer-generated images. And, most of the kids she went to school with have gone on to similar successes. (In fact, an earlier graduate of her school, who is now a CEO of a sizable company, built and painted a harpsichord when he attended, that he later donated to the school!)
Adam Gopnik said something profound: we are impelled to study the humanities because we are human. It is a natural desire and we innately long for an understanding of where we are, where we have come from and where we are headed as a species. We need to anchor today, in yesterday, in history. We need to read books from the 19th century to learn that they struggled with much the same issues and longings and misgivings with which we ourselves are occupied right now.
We study science so we can known the world as it is. But history tells us how we got here, and inspiration found in art, music, books shows us the path to where we can go. You need a creative mind to imagine the next invention. You will not learn that in an engineering or computer class.
Gopnik said that in every past era, the conversations pivoted around books and pictures, literature and art. These things are accessible to all and thus highly democratizing. That is why libraries and museums have always been largely free. Everyone can and should feel part of a conversation that extends back through time to the very beginning of civilization as we know it, and allows our imaginations to freely stretch toward an amazing future.
This is the very core of human desire. In fact, as my Francophone friends know, the word ‘coeur’ or heart is etymologically akin to ‘core’. The human heart desires to understand and the arts speak directly to our hearts and to this need. If we sacrifice them at the altar of practicality, we drain the very life blood and nourishment from our culture.
This country readily teaches our kids to use guns but cannot justify teaching them to paint and write music and read French literature? Maybe if students in all our schools had to draw and paint and model figures from nature, let’s say, of our solar system, in vivid, vibrant colors, they would learn and remember that we do not live in a geocentric universe. They might see the similarities between the species that reveal evolutionary progress, it might be driven home to them that the world has order and is beautiful, and we can know and understand that order through our senses, if we are trained.
They might yearn for true knowledge and not be satisfied until they have explored our world in all its glory, thoroughly.
If you roll over or click on the images, you will see the grade of the students at different Waldorf Schools who created each of these illustrations, in the image URL.
Images: Amazon.com, AWSNA.org