New and Old Takes on Education

I happened upon a couple of readings this weekend that I found worthy of consideration.

The first (2011) is from the NY Times, “Online Learning, Personalized” that profiles the YouTube teaching sensation, Salman Khan.

The second (1957) is from a book we discussed recently in a critical discourse Meetup group here in Santa Fe. I was interested enough that I found and read the book , The Shape of Content, by the artist Ben Shahn. In his last chapter, “The Education of an Artist,” he offers the following “capsule recommendation for a course of education.”

Even though he’s writing specifically about artists, I think, attitudinally, Shahn’s suggestions are generalizable to broader populations of learners. From The Shape of Content (I’ve inserted the paragraph splits for both readability and emphasis.)

Attend a university if you possibly can. There is no content of knowledge that is not pertinent to the work you will want to do.

But before you attend a university, work at something for a while. Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle—yes, even potatoes! Or, in the auto shop, the smell of oil and grease and burning rubber.

Paint of course, but if you have to lay aside painting for a time, continue to draw.

Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously.

Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice.

In college or out of college, read. And form opinions!

Read Sophocles and Euripides and Dante and Proust. Read everything that you can find about art except the reviews. Read the Bible; read Hume; read Pogo. Read all kinds of poetry and know many poets and many artists.

Go to an art school, or two, or three, or take art courses at night if necessary. And paint and paint and draw and draw.

Know all that you can, both curricular and noncurricular—mathematics and physics and economics, logic, and particularly history.

Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French.

Look at pictures and more pictures. Look at every kind of visual symbol, every kind of emblem; do not spurn sign-boards or furniture drawings or this style of art or that style of art. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind. Do not dismiss any school of art, not the Pre-Raphaelites nor the Hudson River School nor the German Genre painters.

Talk and talk and sit at cafes, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. Listen to preachers in small town churches and in big city churches. Listen to politicians in New England town meetings and to rabble-rousers in Alabama. Even draw them.

And remember that you are trying to learn to think what you want to think, that you are trying to co-ordinate mind and hand and eye.

Go to all sorts of museums and galleries and to the studios of artists. Go to Paris and Madrid and Rome and Ravenna and Padua. Stand alone in Sainte Chapelle, in the Sistine Chapel, in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. Draw and draw and paint and learn to work in many media; try lithography and aquatint and silkscreen. Know all that you can about art, and by all means have opinions.

Never be afraid to become embroiled in art or life or politics; never be afraid to learn to draw or paint better than you already do; and never be afraid to undertake any kind of art at all, however exalted or however common, but do it with distinction.

[Postscript, April 2019] Reviewing this I’m struck by the attitudinal similarities of Ben Shahn on ‘art’ here and the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein’s famous comment on “specialization is for insects,” extolling the virtues of general competency as a desired trait I had noted in 2007:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.