In his plea for peace entitled “Imagine,” John Lennon once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Each listener was called on to imagine a peaceful world united by fraternity and social kinship in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—we could end violence through community initiative.
Indeed, most children are raised with the understanding that violent behavior is not a tolerable type of social interaction. In line at the grocery store, mothers scold their children for hitting, while the maternal adage of “Keep your hands to yourself!” is one that stays with many of us long after we leave the nest. Even schoolteachers are given the task of teaching students about proper social interaction: hitting is uncivilized, brutish, and absolutely will not—or, at least, should not—be tolerated in the classroom.
Yet, as we develop over the years, this simple philosophy often manages to get muddied. Whether you blame video games and the internet, music videos and lyrics, or movies and TV, there appears to be an endless supply of mixed messages. Suddenly, Mom’s warning doesn’t seem to stick as much as it once did, as children are left with the arduous task of unraveling the infinite number of signals being sent to them—all in the hopes of developing a coherent system of socially accepted behaviors.
This same situation unfolds in our educational climate.
In my time spent working at a preschool, I discovered that the promise of “free art time” was like Kindergarten catnip. Overexcited four-year-olds would frantically put away their toys and rush to the art station, anxiously awaiting their supplies. As each child meticulously created his or her own small masterpiece, the only sound that would fill the room was a quiet chatter outlining each illustration in painstaking detail.
Yet, by middle school, there is no “free art time.” Students are either encouraged to read, finish homework, or (if you’re lucky enough to get a “cool” teacher) quietly talk to a friend. There is no creative outlet. Sure, reading may have the ability to excite one’s imagination, but—as with any chore—it loses its appeal when it becomes an obligation. When the entire day is structured around implementing obligations, is it any wonder so many students complain about disliking school?
Additionally, this practice can even turn the Arts themselves into a slippery slope of begrudging commitment. If one is expected to play the violin for 3 hours each, this too becomes a chore. As a result, the benefits usually incurred through creative expression can be dampened just as easily as they’re fostered. This tells us that it’s not necessarily the practice of “art” itself that produces such strong educational advantages, but something else…
Something bigger, and perhaps a little less tangible.
John Lennon invites us to consider a world different from our own—one lacking possessions, countries, and religion—all for the sake of mental exercise through an imagined future. In listening to my four-year-old students chatter about their art projects, each one had a story unfolding from it:
“…Here’s the sun, and here’s you and me…First, we’re playing outside. Then we pick flowers for my mommy and I find a really big yellow one…” **
There is no obligation in developing this story; it could just as easily be a picture comprised of colors and scribbles without any associated meaning. But the act of choosing to develop a spontaneous, original story is where the element of creative liberty shines through:
It is here that “art” takes place. It is here that Maxine Greene’s mission of “releasing the imagination” is met.
As this practice all too rarely occurs in secondary education, it is also here that we still have a lot of work to do. In advocating for an arts education, it is not simply about securing band instruments and school plays—indeed, seeking to develop a codified structure of “the Arts in schools” defeats the very purpose. Instead what we must do is foster that development of expression: tell me a story; make something up, anything; use your imagination.
Only by adapting our current learning practices and incorporating this philosophy into our current education structure will we fully access the benefits derived from arts-based education.
** [N.B. That was the actual story provided by my student, Addison, on the first picture featured in the photograph above.]