Education: a mirror or a lamp?

Gareth Jones on the future of art education

There are four constituents in higher education: students, teachers, facilities and curricula. You hear a lot about the first three. Student problems, faculty hiring and improving facilities are often in the news. Rarely do curriculum issues make the news unless they come from the religious right. ‘Intelligent design’ is design for the unintelligent, but at least it provides a debate about subjects and the methods of teaching them.

Parents and prospective students of a college will know teachers’ names, ranks and qualifications. If a faculty member has achieved fame in his or her field, they will even know a bit about their professional life. But they will not know anything about the teacher’s pedagogical life. Nor will they enquire. They regard a syllabus like the owner’s manual of an automobile. Everyone has one but no one reads it.

Parents may not know about pedagogy but they know real estate when they see it. So colleges parade their facilities. They commodify education in response to a society which is acquisitive but not inquisitive. A building with a colonnaded façade goes down really well; it symbolises classical ideals. However, it should contain the latest in technology: cutting edge and classical are an ideal combination. Through these things, the complexity of education is simplified into images.

If you ask anyone which of the four constituents is most important, they will answer the students – it seems obvious. If you ask what is the purpose of education, they will repeat, ‘the students’; they will answer ‘who’ to a question about ‘what’ and they will not notice that they have done so. They confuse recipient with content and product with purpose. And students are the product of education; they are a type of commodity that parents pay for. You see this vividly expressed at graduation ceremonies: the product even comes neatly wrapped in a cap and gown.

It is difficult to imagine that any institution of higher education would base itself on transitory elements but many are doing so. In systematic terms, that is what students are. They come and go; and in the limited time they attend college they present a variable factor. In these formative years, students change frequently and continuously. These traits are valuable because they stir up the learning atmosphere. But to base education on them is highly questionable. At its best, education is about principles that embody lasting values, not temporary ones.

These three constituents have had a profound effect on the fourth, the curriculum. The curriculum is shifting position from the centre of education, the core, to the boundary where it is camped between education and the outside world. Some teachers and most administrators have become fixated on the EXIT sign, with the chief question being what do students need to get a job? But the real exit question is how can we turn out students who will fit in with the requirements of society? This cannot be good because it is education for conformity. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world in which they live. Unreasonable people expect the world to adapt to them. Therefore, all change (all innovation) is due to unreasonable people.’

More and more education is producing students who are reasonable and adaptive. I have no doubt they will find a job. But what kind of job? A job which is tolerable and will pay the rent? Will they want to go to work, or need to go to work? How many of them will confuse exhaustion with fulfilment, labour with occupation, and reason with purpose? Hard work is a means not an end. A means to what? For many people the answer would include wealth and possessions. And colleges, knowingly or not, conspire with this goal when they market education.

Challenged with questions of relevance to society, colleges are beginning to cave in to pressure. How do you justify something which is not immediate and practical to a society beset with immediate and practical problems? Outreach programmes are a well-intended solution but disastrous if they take ideas, energy and resources away from the curriculum. There is a doughnut effect as educators empty out the core to feed the boundary.

Colleges can be helpful to their communities, but they cannot, should not, serve them. This is a dangerous misconception of education. Colleges are essentially separate from society. They provide time apart for students, an elevation from the mundane. They provide an opportunity to be reflective not reflexive. And they encourage students to immerse themselves in a subject so that it surrounds them. It is this act of surrounding that has been misinterpreted as a wall; and the reaction in many quarters is to break it down. There is no wall, simply a context which has been delimited for academic reasons and which is called a curriculum.

This stems, in part, from looking outside education to a world where rapid change has blurred knowledge. Many subjects are now taught as if they are viewed from a fast-moving vehicle.

The curriculum is becoming an unlimited context as teachers conceive of knowledge as transferable. A subject is used as a means to other things. For example, art may be taught as a way of understanding politics or social problems. Teachers who do this have ethical and moral intentions but they are not teaching art. Indeed, they compromise the integrity of the subject. The reason for this is, again, partly external. There are always students who study a particular subject but decide not to enter that field when they graduate. In the past, colleges would have drawn the simple conclusion that these students made the wrong choice. Now, the curriculum is being adjusted and becoming more generalised. Herbert Read, the eminent British historian, saw this problem emerging 50 years ago when he wrote about educators who teach through a subject, rather than to a subject.

The curriculum is the core of education. It is the inner life of a college or university. We admire people who have an inner life, for instance philosophers. Why don’t we acknowledge that education has the same quality? MH Abrams used the metaphor of a lamp that illuminates inner life and a mirror that reflects external reality. The responsibility of education, primarily, is to illuminate not reflect. These conditions are not mutually exclusive but the current between them is one way. A mirror can enhance the light of a lamp. But a lamp cannot increase the reflectiveness of a mirror.

Gareth Jones is professor of foundation studies at Rhode Island School of Design.

First published in Art Monthly 320: October 2008.

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