Εγκύκλιο Παιδεία • Liberal Arts

3, February 2017 § 2 Comments

“When we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.” –Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, 1998

libeal_artsSeven Liberal Arts: Francesco Pesellino: 1422-1457 Florence

While hoping to find a way to take a much needed sabbatical many years ago I made some phone calls in search for a person to take over my job for a semester. I talked to a woman who taught at a well known academy in the States, someone who I felt could teach drawing and painting simultaneously as I had been doing for years at the Aegean Center.  I gave her the outline of the program; a three month course, in Greece, teaching 20 hours a week, covering the gamut from printmaking to oil painting.  She brushed aside my inquiry but not because she felt the weight of long hours of teaching, or because the responsibilities were onerous, but because she would need to teach drawing and painting concurrently.  She said that a student needed a full year of basic drawing, followed by a full year of figure drawing before they should be allowed to touch a brush. When I explained that being a single semester abroad program prevented us from spreading out the curriculum in this way she dumbfounded me with her response.  “Well”‘ she said, “I consider myself a fascist when it comes to art instruction”. I thanked her for her time and promptly hung up.

In relating this story to students I often wondered whether the fascist intent was sanctioned by her academy or if it was just her own perverse mindset. I have unfortunately seen and heard of teachers who felt their method was uniquely correct and had no tolerance for other viewpoints. In art classes the slavish adherence to what is fashionable and a blindness to tradition can narrow students responses. As teachers we must all ensure that our students learn the basic skills that will serve them in future no matter which direction the art world takes. I am deeply committed to obtaining and practicing these skills, but to be a self proclaimed fascist in order to attain that objective is repugnant. Recently I contemplated her response again and thought about it in context to the current political climate. It still horrifies me and I still fight against the dictates that her statement implies.

The Liberal Arts were conceived to educate citizens who could uphold the highest ideals of the Greek and Roman cultures.  Rhetoric, grammar, logic comprised the trivium and to these were added the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Over the course of the centuries a liberal arts education has come to means something broader but it still indicates a course of study which seeks to inculcate a student to uphold the fundamental underpinning of a democratic society. The arts, especially the visual arts, play a role in embedding memory, culture and history into the minds of citizens.  The museum plays its part as well as the galleries, publications and criticism. The arts aspire to imagination, forward thinking, to uphold aesthetic ideals and keep sensitivity alert. This perhaps is why the first thing many dictators do is imprison the artists and poets. But art can also be fashioned into propaganda and can in itself become weighted down with rules and dictates. And apparently teaching art can become fascistic as well.

If we are to remain an open society we need to teach the creative process and embody  it as well in our teaching. I try to foster a creative environment in the studio along with emphasizing the discipline that learning an art form demands. Strangely, many art students do not feel creative. The striving to make something of merit often stifles the urge to begin. Creativity requires a certain amount of mess, of boredom, of play and practice in order to perform its magical alchemy. Rigid hierarchical formulae do not help to promote its appearance. We cannot be creative if we are being taught that conforming is the most important requirement.  This is why so many students feel that being creative is a rare gift rather than a natural outcome of their nature, too many years spent in graded, monitored, tested classrooms can kill off the ability to create. Often beginning students are intensely creative before fear and compliance knock them back into simply performing for others.

I stay in my job with pleasure, it keeps me involved in my passions and engaged with young clever minds. I teach drawing and painting but I also feel my job is to awaken students to their own nascent creativity. To engage in the creative process is to grow as a person and as a citizen of the world.  Within the beautiful environment of the Center with its multicultural milieu, with imaginative and intellectual activities and trusting relationships the creative is allowed to emerge.     :Jane Morris Pack

“Those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and . . . they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1779

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