"To teach as if the whole world were in the balance."
This paper concerns itself with making the teaching of an artistic enterprise, thus necessarily a holistic enterprise, an enterprise of bringing into congruence mind, body, and spirit. The evidence for this perspective? Having been a student, a teacher of art, and a participant-observer of life for over seventy-five years, I have observed the following reoccurring phenomena;
- To the degree there is congruence amongst the mind, and the body, and the spirit, there is to a like degree, a complexion of grace, depth, naturalness, and power in ones’ social behaviors and artistic expressions.
- Similarly, to the degree there is dissonance amongst the mind, and the body, and the spirit, there is a dampening and distorting of social behavior and artistic expression.
- It is also my experience that the latter; dissonance across mind, body and spirit, is by far the most common state of being, individually and collectively, the communities of students and teachers that comprise our schools providing no significant exception. I believe it is this dissonance that significantly contributes to the all too common, distorted, exaggerated, fractious social behaviors, and weak and uncertain artistic expressions of many of our students, and subsequently, of many adults, individually and collectively. The lack of internal harmony, coherence of mind, body, and spirit expresses itself in all our outward behaviors, social and artistic.
As we enter a new millennium, one already scared by the fumbling practices of vicious old ways that are daily eroding confidence in a foreseeable world lived in a richly textured peace, it is a worthwhile endeavor that all educators think long and carefully at what would an education look like, one in which the whole teacher, one who prepared themselves by cultivating the full array of their human attributes; mind, body, and spirit, brought their whole and coherent being to bear upon and nurture the whole learner- mind, body, and spirit? What might a full and proper education through the arts look like and contribute to the general elevation of individual and societal behaviors? What shaping force might be imparted to this charge if we also held the belief that the fate of the whole world was in the balance? For, in my opinion, it is.
Towards a holistic paradigm
One might raise the question at this point; just what business is it of arts education to contribute to healing the world, making entire what has been sundered? One might respond to that question with another question, what good is art education if it does not address the critical business of these times? If the field of art education sees this mission as peripheral to their concerns, how could a society that is desperately engaged in a life /death struggle with these same concerns view art education as anything other than peripheral? And consequently, treat art as the amusing and inconsequential thing it mostly is, especially so in our schools.
If one takes a step back from the conventional curricula; instruction in the methods and materials of producing and talking about art-like objects, informed by national and state imposed standards and frameworks, and reflects upon our more primal, bolder, deeper motivations for teaching at all, we might rediscover that underneath all our love of art and love of children, our deepest motivation to teach is, TO HEAL THE WORLD. However unspoken this call to service may be in almost all of our educational literature, when we are put to tears by both our efforts gone for naught and our rare but brilliant achievements, it is because we seemingly took one step towards or one step away from healing the world. What teachers I talk with ultimately confess is that what they are really working for is a better world, a finer world. A world in which the often rambunctious, damaged, near sighted crowd that washes up on threshold of our classroom each year, each day, every period, might eventually form a more perfect union, might actually create a working democracy, live an elevated life, experience themselves as a necessary member of an infinite web of life- an exquisitely woven cosmos, and to partner with everything and everyone accordingly. Isn't everything else you do from day to day just the means to this most sought after, if elusive, end?
Perhaps this is your ambition too, the secret keel beneath your efforts, to not only educate the new generation to fit comfortably amongst the beliefs, values and behaviors of the previous generation, even to make and chat about finely made art; but to educate for the possible human, one who is cultivated the full spectrum of their essential attributes; mind, body, and spirit at peace within an ecology of all beings. To undertake this all but impossible, but oh so necessary task, through our chosen media; the eye, hand and voice of art.
Having been either a student or teacher, or teacher of teachers for the last sixty years, it is has been my experience that we cannot hope to achieve these objectives following either the national standards or state frameworks that proscribe the contents of our curricula, or the teaching strategies we mostly now employ. Why can't we achieve the state of mind necessary for healing the Self and the world, by our current curricula and pedagogies? Certainly not because we are not trying hard enough as some critics of our schools would have us believe. I have come to understand that it because educators, even arts educators, believe that good ideas and sound data are sufficient to inform behavior. Believe, even though we, like all the rest of humanity behave otherwise. And thus the stock and trade of schools and their teachers are data transfer, secondhand ideas, and a modicum of reason. These three make up the contents of our curricula and the basis of our pedagogic strategies. Arts education is all too rarely the exception.
Ideas and reason are extremely powerful strategies of the mind, and they along with a great deal of data, do make us informed even intelligent, often clever. But in and of themselves, they are not sufficient to make us whole, at peace with our selves and our world, graceful in mind, body and spirit. Ideas and reason simply aren't powerful enough to change values and their consequential behaviors. It is the pain of parents, clergy, close friends, and mental health professional; that data and ideas argued by reason have little and imperfect impact on behavior. Every clinical psychologist knows that ideas and data alone have very little force in ultimately modifying their client’s actual behavior. Parents have no less an easy time with their children. You have probably had some like experiences when the topics of choice of diet, religious convictions, race relations, political persuasions, or choice of friends, mates, and clothing come up between you and the emerging generation. (They are probably equally confounded by the same difficulties in changing your behaviors to theirs.)
If our ambition is to elevate behavior to the degree that the whole and integrated person appears - the necessary precursor of the whole and integrated society, then it is the integration of mind, body, and spirit we must be after, and it is an holistic approach to education that we must employ. My readings of the leading observations made by other disciplines of knowledge, my background as an artist and teacher, expressive therapist, and as a fellow who has observed the human condition, and his own, these many years, lead me to believe that a holistic paradigm of education offers a deep and satisfying understanding of learning and therefore of teaching, and does have the potential of equipping its practitioners to (modestly) heal the world. Holistic education means an education of the mind, the body and the spirit. Hopefully, you will find as the argument proceeds, that authentic, serious artistic engagements, provide a perfect model of holistic activity, and therefore teaching the arts within a holistic paradigm can provide an exquisitely made instrument for addressing this high and critical ambition, making a partial self whole, and in so doing, moving that much closer to healing the world.
It is my contention, based on twenty-five years of practice, that a teacher, modeling congruence of mind and body and spirit in their own selves, and employing a curriculum and pedagogy that honors, thus nurtures the mind, body, and spirit of each of their students, can transform graceless, weak, and fractious social behaviors and artistic expression to one of grace, depth, power, even wisdom. In the schools we have. Right now.
~ Peter London