"To teach as if the whole world were in the balance." (Part II)
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.
We begin the exploration of the three elements of a whole person and a holistic approach to arts education with a discussion of what is here meant by “mind”. The term mind intends to include more attributes than the capacity to reason. Reason, as powerful a capacity of mind as it is, is after all only one characteristic of mind and is not in any way the only, even the prime agent of awareness, intelligence, if you will. For we not only reason, but also we dream, we also imagine, intuit, fantasize, exaggerate, remember, believe, we also have the capacity for faith, wonder, and awe. All of these are distinct capacities of our mind, and all of these, together with reason form the human array of mind. Yet our schools call upon and develop only one capacity of mind; reason; and for the most part art education is no exception. A great fault of our system of education, public and private, charter and union, is the taking of reason and reasoning to mean MIND, when reason is only one capacity of the mind's multi valenced capacity to know. Cultivated by the prevailing curricula, pedagogy, testing and system of rewards, this single- albeit powerful- segment of the mind, to the exclusion, thus the atrophy of all the other forms of intelligence, damages the other qualities of mind, and in the end weakens and distorts reason and reasoning.
A most significant observation that Gregory Bateson made in Mind in Nature, and that is the basic observation of the psychology of learning; is that when there is agreement amongst what is derived from reasoning with what we intuit, and what we hope, and what we dream, and what we imagine, and what we remember; we are prone to act accordingly. But when there is dissonance amongst the several intelligences, we are reluctant to act. Any one, even more so, any group of intelligence's that are not in accord with the persuasion of the others, tends to veto the whole shebang and constrain consequential behavior. The mind has many ways to know the world, each way bringing distinctive and necessary news. Only when all the news is in and there is substantial agreement amongst the reporting agencies of the mind, does the corpus of the self give itself permission to act, to behave differently. The actual features of mind to perceive, feel, intuit, imagine, hope, dream, are more vast and interdependent as they combine to steer us through life in the here and now and towards a future we desire, than schooling now admits to and employs. Therefore, the practice of the schools we have are barely sufficient to enculture the new generation into the ways of the old, no less elevate behavior to a higher level.
The Artful Mind
Art Education may not employ and cultivate a holistic mind, but the artful mind is a holistic mind. Wonder, awe, intuition, dreams, fantasy, the subconscious, are all states of mind that are familiar to artists and the literature concerning how artists think. These states of mind of the artist, and in fact of all creative people, ought to find their way into the literature of art education, but they rarely if ever do so. In recent years the literature of art education has all but expunged these terms from its literature and from its state mandated frameworks and standards of expectations for both students and teachers, minimizing their cultivation and importance. One can, of course, teach art without wonder, awe, fantasy, intuition, but then you will end up, of course, with teaching, teachers, students, and their art without wonder, awe, fantasy and intuition. The art like objects so produced will look like art looks, but it won't do the work that art informed by awe, wonder, fantasy and the subconscious does.
It should then come as no surprise at all that schools, cultivating only one of the many agencies of the mind, fail to elevate behavior, when they hardly elevate the mind. In contrast, holistic education calls upon and cultivates reason, but it also calls upon and thus cultivates wonder, memory, awe, intuition, dreaming, fantasy and the like. Not peripherally and incidentally, but centrally, consistently and importantly.
How to nurture this enlarged domain of mind? You don't have to teach a person how to dream, or imagine, or intuit, or to have a subconscious; these states of mind come with being born human. But as teachers we can allow these qualities of mind to atrophy by our neglect of them in our classrooms. How then to nurture this broad and native array? No differently than how anything else is nurtured. Call upon dreaming and wonder and intuition and fantasy and all the rest as seriously, as often, as rewardingly, as instrumentally, as you now call upon reason. And just as reason flourishes or languishes based upon the degree and kind of attention it receives, so will wonder and dreaming and the rest of the array of mindfulness. As will the art so created.
The second element of being human that holistic education deliberately addresses is the body. A sound mind in a sound body was even the credo of the architects of reason, rationality and the academy itself, the Sophists. Here however, we are not only addressing the need to mindfully cultivate the body for healthful and graceful rewards, we call attention to the fact that the entire body has intelligence. Every organ every system, every cell has intelligence. That is, every cell, every organelle, every amino acid! knows what's happening inside it and outside it, and knows what to do when things are OK, and when they are not OK, and of course knows what is OK and what is not OK. Its pattern recognition is uncanny, its awareness is constant, its manufacturing agility without peer, its ability to surmise from the scantiest of evidence unrivaled, it can improvise, heal itself, make new parts, and so on.
Our body is constantly critically, truthfully signaling how it is functioning. But we are rarely if ever taught how to interpret its forms of "speech". And so the critical information that this billion year old system of refined awareness constantly provide, remains all but opaque to us. We must learn the language our medulla and our cerebellum and our spinal cord, our musculature, skin, and the entire network of our central and peripheral nervous is speaking. The news is vital. If the intelligences saturated throughout the body conclude something at variance with the intelligence arrived at throughout the mind, then just as dissonance within the mind inhibits behavior, dissonance between the body and the mind also inhibits behavior. Holistic education carefully explicitly, constantly cultivates the multiple intelligences embedded throughout the entire body.
How? The visual arts can learn a great deal here about what an informed, aware, practiced and attuned body requires from what the community of dancers, athletes, musicians, and theater people know and practice. Many cultures have developed sophisticated systems of educating the aware, alert, intelligent body. Any one of the several forms of Yoga, or Tai Chi, Chi Gung, Reikki work, the Alexander Technique, or the leading edge of our own western medical traditions, might serve as examples. Whatever the tradition, all body work begins with quieting the noisy rational mind, and the twitchy, impulsive body to such a degree that the more subtle utterances of the whole Self and the whole world may be heard and attended to. Here again, there are many systems of quieting the mind from the many meditative practices to just sitting quietly doing nothing, or as Thoreau did, taking a little solitary stroll along some preferred byway.
The Artful Body
The intelligent, harmonious body is no stranger to the arts. It may well be said that the creative process is a process of embodiment. The accounts of artists; visual, theatrical, musical, are replete with evidence of how much inspiration and guidance originates in their kinesthetic selves. The community of artists is constantly referring to feelings, literal feelings that often appear to them to be automatic, physically demanding of expression in their artistic forms. These physical inclinations need not be the sometimes, vague, and untutored phenomena as they are now treated if they are treated at all. There is a non-rational intelligence that is characteristic of our selves that is located all throughout our many cells, organs and systems. An education in and through the arts that fails to cultivate this body-intelligence reduces and distorts the full and proper education in general, certainly in and through the arts.
A novel idea? Not at all. The Bauhaus School in the 1920-s and 30's incorporated these same principles throughout the curriculum and as a result created the new languages of the arts that still dominate our current vocabulary of all the art forms. Kandinsky, Itten and Klee, three significant Bauhaus faculty and progenitors of Modern art, based their art and their pedagogy directly on these same holistic principles. Beyond the European tradition, we can turn to any, no every tradition from Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas and find this same basic appreciation of a tuned body being the prime instrument for the artistic enterprise.
We come now to the dimension of holistic education that at first glance might seem contentious, or at least obscure: Spirit, the third dimension of Being, and thus the third dimension of holistic education. But it need not be either contentious or obscure if we simply define- for our purposes- Spirit is any quality we hold to be of ultimate value. The spiritual dimension provides an essential quality to our being and the overriding complexion to our general behavior. Our spiritual center may be composed of a deity or deities, pantheism, philanthropy, geography, or a cherished history. Whatever resides enduringly at the core of our belief and value system, or again, whatever is of ultimate and irreducible concern, can be said to create our spiritual dimension.
How to evince and nurture matters of the spirit in the teaching of art? Here again, the response is straightforward; raise the great existential/ philosophical /anthropological/theological/ and scientific issues with your students as a bases for reflection and expression in their work. The very same category of questions that lie at the core of everyone's arena of ultimate concerns;
Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? Who are you, really? Who am I, really? What is of ultimate value to me? About me? What price glory, Where are we going? How shall we get there? How will we know when we have arrived? What are the meanings of the world to me? In what ways do I matter to the world? Is this all there is? And so on.
When one cultivates this level of introspection in students, and brings them together with a teacher seriously interested in attending to those reflections, then the urgency and the freedom to express those reflections full and clear, crafts those expressions to the level of art.
We should not be surprised to observe that just as dissonance within the mindfulness of the brain leads to inaction or weak action, and dissonance between the intelligence's of the body and those of mind, lead to similar constrained behavior, dissonance amongst our spiritual convictions and those of our body, and of our mind also confound and constrain behavior. The matter is actually worse than this; for dissonance amongst mind, body and spirit does not simply dampen or inhibit behavior (learning), more perniciously, dissonance distorts, warps behavior, more often than not with violent consequences for the practitioner and their surround. One might well wonder to what degree our own violence prone society is symptomatic of the unbalanced manner in which we school our children.
When there is harmony amongst the mind, body and spirit, however, people experience what Abraham Maslow termed a "peak" experience, or what James would call a "religious" experience, or an ecstatic experience, or Jamake Highwater would call a "spiritual" experience, or just being "in the groove", as Mickey Harte, or Louis Armstrong might say. Whatever the name and from whatever the cause, when there is congruence across mind, body and spirit, people in such states of alignment all report remarkably similar states of being: Effort becomes light, ideas flow easily and rapidly, endurance is extended, so is patience, focus becomes more concentrated, time becomes extended, boundaries soften, definition becomes clearer, crisper, the ego retracts, all the senses become more acute, images appear entire, the world seems at very worst pleasant if not joyous, everything seems interesting, everything seems to matter, everything seems to be a portion of everything else, a feeling of affection attends to all, emotions are full but without strong eddies and turbulence, there is a sense of being both replete and full of appetite, it seems easy to be the subject and object of love, there is a sense that one has been privileged to glimpse the features of some divine plan. That somehow, everything will be all right.
In other words, elevated, artistic behavior is the natural human behavior whenever there is a congruence of mind, body and spirit. It is what artists and creative people and lovers report all the time. And there is no reason why the exchange between teacher and student could not achieve similar results. Especially in the arts. Any education that seeks to elevate behavior, seeks to address in fullness the task of healing the world, requires an education of the mind, the body, the spirit. Especially in the arts.
- Peter London