lessons from elwood.

Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 classic, “Harvey.”

Upon reflecting on all of my family’s traditions, one stands out above the rest:

On the rainiest of lazy weekend days, the whole brood would pile up on the couch with popcorn, snacks, various knitting projects, and our puppies in order to snuggle and watch Jimmy Stewart play Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.”

Some were, admittedly, a little more distracted than others.

Black and white movies always have a way of making even the dreariest days seem vibrant and full of color, but what set “Harvey” apart as our go-to “family flick” was the way it seamlessly integrated our most cherished values and consolidated them into a single 104-minute film. In particular, one pivotal quote could stand as the motto of our family crest:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.”

As I near the end of my college career (less than three short weeks!), I am reminded to pay homage to what helped me to reach this point in my life.

I am brought back to the summer after 4th grade where my mom and I spent an entire day in the IKEA showrooms playing house and pretending we were famous chefs starring in our own cooking show. I remember impromptu art projects, making gluten-free ravioli by hand, cabin vacations, spending countless frustrated hours pouring over and revising college essays together, sipping on mojitos with mint from our garden, talking for hours about everything, embracing innumerable tangents and digressions of conversation, and the entire spectrum of minutiae that comes from being a part of a boldly opinionated, close-knit, loving family.

Mom and I enjoying a gluten-free mustache party after baking.

However, I am also reminded of how this experience is undoubtedly “atypical.” Many of my friends are the byproduct of a highly structured environment, delicately balancing sports, academics, and just the “right” amount of piano lessons to ensure they’re “well-rounded.” This is no sleight: there are obviously many paths to receiving a satisfactory education and every approach is different.

For my particular path, though, this emphasis on play and active learning has been instrumental in broadening the way I see the world. In order to demonstrate the educational significance of what this approach has offered me, I call to a concept expounded upon in Elliot Eisner’s The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Eisner points out that “artistic activity is a form of inquiry that depends on qualitative forms of intelligence (Eisner, p. 232).” The reason for this is simple: art—and imaginative learning in general—affords us new ways to form conceptual connections through representation. As Eisner further elaborates:

“The process of representation stabilizes ideas and images, makes the editing process possible, provides the means for sharing meaning, and creates the occasions for discovery …The act of representation is an act of discovery and invention and not merely a means through which an individual’s will is imposed upon a material. It is this sense of discovery that affords individuals the opportunity to grow (p. 239).”

Stewart’s character, Elwood P. Dowd, reminds us that discovery is not solely limited to the tangible properties surrounding us (in Philosophy, we like to call this “the external world”), but rather can be deeply rooted in the process of creating and sharing meaning. One of my favorite scenes recounts time spent in a bar, as Elwood explains how he and his imaginary friend, Harvey, interact with their fellow patrons:

“Harvey and I sit in the bars…And soon the faces of all the other people turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, ‘We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers—soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us.

They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”

In this scene, Elwood and Harvey both create and share meaning with perfect strangers despite the fact that Harvey doesn’t exist to anyone but Elwood. Quite simply, though, he doesn’t need to. The representation and sharing of imaginative conversation is enough to sustain the creative process. This, in turn, facilitates qualitative learning by imparting significance upon a wholly malleable medium. Harvey may represent one thing to Elwood, but the story passed down to a fellow patron may take on a completely new life.

There is flux in the process, and it is through the simultaneous enacting and embrace of the process—whether it’s making ravioli by hand, writing an essay, or swapping bar stories—that one can adjoin becoming “oh so smart” with being “oh so pleasant.”

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