In the last week of the fall term, I had a conversation with an instructor in my department about a couple of issues that came up in his class. Together, we explored some alternative responses and even a couple of practical strategies he might introduce in the following term. As we began to wrap things up, I asked him to personally evaluate the course and how he thought it fit in with the larger departmental picture. He replied that he thought the subject was important, but might be more valuable for students if placed earlier in their course of study. I was a little surprised when he said that he was most concerned that the students might not be moving through their work fast enough and that even though the majority of their work was successful, “they don’t really seem to understand how the real world works.’
I thought about this for almost a minute without saying anything. I arranged some things on my desk, shut down my computer and with the room becoming quiet, I responded that with all I had been through in my life so far, there have been many moments that I had to learn and relearn how the “real world” works and while family and friends have been crucial in helping me through the tough times, school has had the greatest influence on a long-term commitment to my work, seriousness of intention, but also created all the contexts for change, optimism and patience for a life in the arts. In some of the recent questions I have asked my students, I have been quite pleased to find out how much they seem to know and are learning about their version of the real world.
Each year I spend in education brings me closer to a better understanding of my student’s long-term investment in career. They arrive at the campus excited by the prospect that somehow their attendance will be enough to make the transformation from student to professional. I am always watching for any of the signs of maturity. It comes slow and is immeasurably painful for some, but as one student grows just a little, they seem to take three more along with them. School is just a place. Individuals make things happen there. Instructors encourage, challenge, admonish and attempt to create a vertical pitch to the course information. Work, participation and assignments also guide students at a pace that, while more structured than life itself, clarifies a potential path for a interesting and sustainable proportionality of work, play, practice, failure, rest, reflection, recovery and the inclusion of both a criticality of refinement and inspiration.
I think one of the real reasons we find ourselves in arts education is because we share this dream with our students of a life and career in a balance that one achieves when making the inspired and original works that embrace all that we know, leveraged intelligently and confidently at the more we can’t ever know.
I continued, saying that I think that as much as we might hope that all our students will somehow demonstrate the maturity and discipline concerning all that we, the teachers, know and value in the world, the reality of any two generations, past, present or future, finding mutuality in how they perceive the real world, simply isn’t possible and might not even be the most important goal.
I concluded by saying I was more concerned that every instructor could observe and contextualize the developing pluralities of the many real worlds that our students will need to recognize and understand, more than just this one already somewhat aging world in their future.
When speaking about her early memories of school, Joyce Carol Oates said, “In the cramped finite space of the one-room schoolhouse what an infinite space was evoked: Each book, its cover opened, led miraculously inward and downward, tunneling away from the mere surface of things.”
I think and hope that education can and will always meet its larger responsibility than to just introduce students to the mere surface of any current real world. In creating a universe for all students to learn for themselves about art, design and history, we have an opportunity to encourage explorations of the unforeseeable ideas, and help them sharpen their unshaped passions with the edges of knowledge. Show them the risks and rewards in challenging the canon and that daring the real world to see and enjoy new and mysterious structures for all that is regarded as art, abstraction, original, poetic and personal is simply the life of an artist, well lived.
In paraphrasing the words of Ms. Oates, all schools can ever represent is the finite space, however luxurious and privileged some schools are or more commonly, the dull and impoverished buildings that somehow, genius’ still emerge from. The work that students should be invited to engage is of uncertainty, opportunity and possibility for their tunneling inward, downward and away from the simplistic framework of the lesson. It should challenge even the most remote dependence on a future of assigned work with any perception of regular or measured increase of difficulty. Students should be searching for new ways to exercise their imagination.
Those students, who want so enthusiastically to go to college but only have experienced this “real world’s” perceptions of how artists and designers work think that we will help them find name and purpose for what they already know and do. They arrive as the imperfect creatures of habit, laziness, distraction and indecision. These are simply the products of childhood dreams and everyone begins with wanting to make their life’s work out of those daydreams. We take those and help them build something of substance. These same students are also ambitious, thoughtful, artistic, optimistic, trusting, and human. Education doesn’t select certain attributes and teach only to those. We teach the whole person. Sometimes it seems that they are just stargazing, other times, they are looking and studying this real world from heights only the history of art can measure.
After the grades have been issued, the graduation ceremonies over, the families gone home and the teachers already busy teaching the next class of students, our graduates will have gone out with all the tools necessary to be artists and designers in this real world, but more importantly, with a vision and potential for much, much more.
 The Writing Life, Writers on How They Think and Work. A Collection from the Washington Post Book World. Edited by Marie Arana Public Affairs 2003