Wednesday, May 06, 2015

To Open Minds

"To Albers mind, you couldn't get anywhere until you'd mastered the fundamentals. School was not a place to let loose and express yourself, or even to make art. School was a place for developing skills that would enable you to work effectively later. His approach was a pragmatic one, steeped in an old-world ethos of diligence and craftsmanship, values often dramatically at odds with those in force in American schools today." (Frederick A. Horowitz)

For my birthday, my wonderful ex-wife and children recently got me the beautiful biography of Josef Albers, To Open Eyes (Phaidon, 2006), by Frederick Horowitz and Brenda Danilowitz. I'm a huge admirer of Albers, both as an artist and as a teacher, and this book explains, in elaborate detail, why that is. Like most people, I first learned of his approach to teaching art through his book, Interaction of Color, which spoke to me immediately. "Because of the laboratory character of these studies," Albers wrote, "there is no opportunity to decorate, to illustrate, to represent anything, or to express something—or one's self." He was trying to open the students' eyes to colour, he wanted to get them to experience what colour does on the page. In that same spirit, I've long thought of my own project as opening students' minds to words.

Albers wanted to teach students how to produce particular visual effects simply by the careful arrangement of patches of colour. He was adamant that students would only learn how to do this by deliberate experimentation toward solutions to the simple problems he would set them. He did not want to teach them a "theory" of colour that their work might then demonstrate or illustrate. He wanted to make them good at organising colours deliberately. By a similar token, I want to make students good at arranging words, sentences and paragraphs into articles (little collections of "joints") with literary effects. In philosophy, this is the ability to write your concepts down. In science, it's being able to write down what you know.

While this does, as I wrote about recently*, ultimately involve "representation" (of facts) and "expression" (of beliefs), the objects and subjects of my authors' writing are not really any of my concern. I take it for granted that they know things and that they have something to say. This becomes merely the material and the occasion for thinking seriously about how to write. I do sometimes point out that an author has not adequately supported a claim in a particular paragraph, or that their theory sounds very strange or puzzling. This is not a comment on their ideas but their expression of them; it is a critique of what they have accomplished on the page (with their hands), not what's on their minds (in their heads). If they reach a conclusion about their ideas on this basis, however, they are of course welcome to do so.

"School," says Horowitz in his introduction, "was [for Albers] a place for developing skills that would enable you to work effectively later." That's my attitude too. I don't really expect students (at any level) to discover the "truth" about their subject matter. I don't care whether or not what they are saying is a correct description of reality. I care about whether the words they write carry a definite meaning. Whether they make sense. Just as Albers cared mainly whether the student's work had an effect, whether it made a definite visual impression. Our common goal is to teach people how to "work effectively". It is to this end that we must open their eyes and minds.

*See this post and this one. Note that I'm here also echoing Horowitz's worry about the "values ... in force in American schools today". "In many schools," he writes earlier, "[visual training has been replaced] with courses and exercises that address social, scientific, political, gender, and ethnic concerns." This looks a lot like the displacement of the prose essay in the composition classroom that Freddie deBoer cautions against. Horowitz admits that our values look "old-fashioned". I prefer the hipper expression: I'm old-school!

No comments: