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

The Sanctum

15, October 2012 § Leave a comment

At the core of the Aegean Center, lies the philosophy of the Sanctum, the Center’s special space for students in the hill village of Lefkes.  If the Center is an oasis for the Classical arts in a wasteland of post-modernism, then the Sanctum is an island refuge from the din of the over-connected, banal networks found in the supposed modern world.  In my own experience I have found the Sanctum to be a place of healing, a fountain of renewal after I had been drained dry by societies pressures and the indecision of identity and character.

In 2010 I was still connected to old rhythms, still dancing a tired, limping waltz leftover from an exhausting home-care commitment in which I had willingly labored since 2004 and human aid work in Bosnia in 2007 and 2008.  That fresh spring day I had not intended to come to sit in the clear light of that quiet room.  I had wandered around Lefkes hoping to take some interesting photos in the streets and the surrounding area, but found myself, quite by accident, at the Sanctum’s door.  The students had visited the place a few weeks before with John Pack.  He had told us something about himself that day and opened up his heart in both joy and sadness.  I inserted my shiny, new key, turned the lock and walked in.  I put down my day-pack.  It suddenly felt too heavy to bear.  The muted April light shining through the windows illuminated the soft pillows, colorful rugs and a small wooden writing desk on the floor.  There were only earth tones, nothing jarring to the senses. There was a painting on the wall, some wooden tables, a few simple caned chairs. The air was cool, scented with oregano growing in small pots.  In comparison I felt heavy, ungainly, somewhat unbalanced.  My mind was buzzing with a dull grey drone and I found myself asking questions as old as Paros:  “Why am I here? Who am I? What is my reason? Where am I going? What will I find when I get there?”  I sat down roughly into the pillows, grateful for their softness, kicked off my shoes and fell into oblivion.

I awoke an hour later feeling more calm, but still pensive.  I had dreamed.  I understood that it was acceptable to feel uncertain, to ask these questions of myself.  I didn’t need the answers today.  Perhaps they would never be satisfied.  To keep searching would be better than ending the quest with a quick, efficient, modern answer.  I had discovered this vital truth, a truth I knew in my heart, in a little room in Greece, surrounded by silence and light.  I returned to Paroikia that afternoon, transformed.

So what is the philosophy of the Sanctum?  To be honest I am not entirely sure, but I know that there is one important rule:  No electronic interference or devices: no mobile phones, no internet, no recorded music, no games.  Nothing that would distract the mind from the important experience of ‘being’, as opposed to ‘doing’.  We come to the Sanctum to learn who we are, just as we come to the Aegean Center to experience something we do not have in America, or wherever we are from.  With any luck we leave that behind when we step off the boat from Athens.  We search for something more meaningful in a world measured by ‘things’ and a vertical technology.  We disengage from the cacophony of an incorrectly defined progressive era, step over the marble threshold and into a clear and quiet room.  We put down what we carry.

– John D.C. Masters, Paros, 15 October, 2012

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