Radiating from Our Senses, Pedagogically Yours

The poet May Swenson, in her preface to a selection of Tomas Transtromer poems she had translated into English, offers what might be the perfect vision for public education:

Signals and responses radiating from our senses (visual, tactile, acoustic, kinetic) give rise to various arts, for instance, painting, sculpture, music, and dance.  Poetry, we like to think, combines them all within its matrix of language, while producing an intellectual blossom specifically its own.  Fortunate are those arts not dependent on words–able to stand free, therefore, in the field of perception anywhere in the world..  To be widely “seen,” poetry must submit to alteration of its very body with the process of translation–an essentially clumsy and disfiguring act.

There is something in the phrase “submit to alteration” that reminds me of the Shakespeare sonnet that folks like to quote at weddings, #116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove…

We are always translated by the other.  And the other always translates us.  Swenson goes on to wonder why we haven’t come up with some kind of common tongue as most languages come out of a common root language.  There once was Latin of course, and Sanskrit…and cuneiform was a kind of common writing shared by cultures with different languages so many millenia past.  These were languages of learning and in that way were languages of privilege, of caste, of courts and accountants.

In some ways we are always struggling against that official version of life (of love, of poetry)–we want to translate back into our personal vernacular if we can.  Of course, we learn soon enough that the language of power is such for a reason and that we’d better pay heed if we are to score passing grades in life.

My continuing attention here to education, to schools and to thinking in schools has much to do with trying to re-translate the languages in which we live our lives.

What I am trying to stress is that it may be that school is the only opportunity we have to tell our children something else about the world; to offer another way to understand our cradle to grave period that doesn’t entail words like “career” and “money” and “global competition” or “resource scarcity” or “labor markets.”

The 100-years war in America of business interests against individual interest is, at least, being broadly and openly debated now via the “Occupy Movement.”

But, Power, as we must be aware, always tells the official story.  It is so often repeated as truth that we lose our ability to even question it.

In this respect offering to create schools with missions that are commitments to “learning”; to inspiring learning, developing learning, preparing for learning will not be sufficient.  We must interrogate the X of learning.  Our students will be inspired to learn…but what?  Class hierarchies?  Debt-reliance?  Freedom is what the biggest Military budget says it is?

Learning is always about an X. We can say we promote learning or the passion for learning or the process of learning I suppose. But there will always be a “what did you learn” lurking in there!  And that is indeed the culture of testing we are being forced to implement.

What we choose to teach and how we choose to teach it (the X) is what is value-laden. Even the particular choice or exclusion of content is value-laden (see the recent rewriting of textbooks for Texas children). It is chosen to meet a social preconception. “We are this.” My goal here is to promote a discussion about that very thing–If “we are this” what of it is good, what is questionable, what of it is harmful? We are “this” often simply by not paying attention to what we have become through external pressures.

So, I want to define our best possible human world. Mine is based on empathy and doesn’t value given hierarchies–I don’t value money outside of needing it for survival, I don’t value “ladder-climbing”, I don’t value “professions”, I don’t value rules and regulations that privilege a ruling class, and I don’t value trying to “work within the given.” I value re-writing these rules to better fit the whole.

To be blunt, I think our greatest failure as a species is what most likely value as the greatest strength, the drive to make and remake the world around us.  These “discoveries” tend to lead to greater and greater capacities for inflicting pain and suffering on others.

I am a proponent of doing nothing and of making nothing of any permanence (or rather, reducing the drive to permanence). I believe the artist who understands the ephemeral nature of being creates in the face of that very ephemeral nature, creates in the face of impermanence, a thing to be momentary and momentarily of beauty. The wind will blow it away and the river will erode it. We are this too

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Stones that we have thrown I hear
falling, glass-clear through the years.  In the valley
fly the moment’s chaotic
acts shrieking from
treetop to treetop.  Made mute
in thinner air than that of the present, they glide
like swallows over mountain
and mountain, until they
reach the farthest plains
at the edges of existence.  There fall
all our achievements
to no bottom
except within ourselves

(“Stones,” Transtromer/Swenson)

We create, we share, for the moment, for ourselves and our neighbors–we are to share the joy of the great gift of language and art. We are in no need of greater discoveries in the sciences. Unless of course they can determine how to stop our destroying ourselves.

So, all that said, to great groaning and eye-rolling, here is what I would hope for in a school:

No more than 10-1 student-teacher ratio
Vast rooms filled with musical instruments
Vast rooms filled with arts supplies
Vast rooms for performance
Immediate access to natural environments
Vast rooms and fields for play

Every child an artist, every child a musician, every child a poet, every child a thinker, every child a philosopher, every child a neighbor to every other child. Every child a reader. Every child a singer. And on and on.

Sadly, we spend the majority of our time creating ORDER. Imposition of order on a natural flow normally leads to disaster (cf. the Mississippi River).

“A building, a philosophy, an institution, a school devoted to disparate definitions of what it means to be human. A place promoting the critical consciousness of humans. A place promoting the Arts as the highest calling. Inquiry!, our motto. Artistic practice, our method.”


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1 Comment

  1. Pablo Arteza November 22, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Great points, great post. Think about how much more valuable school could have been for all of us if we had experienced it within this construct. I, for one, was so terrified of school as a young student, and probably the only thing I was truly learning was that – to be afraid and obey. It took me too long to find the creative part of me that didn’t fit into the order of school.

    And, yes. To nod to Emerson, we, as Americans, do too often concede cultural superiority to Europeans. But perhaps Europe is more of this artistic playgroud? Or perhaps we just imagine it as such.


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