February 2nd, 2012
The sun had long since dipped below the horizon on Sunday evening when my son, hunched over a sprawl of binders and soundly beat up grade 9 textbooks, turned and asked that question that I had always imagined my students putting to their parents.
“What should I write my English essay on?” my son queried.
What indeed? A host of ridiculous titles raced across the fictitious high definition screen of my cranium: “What are the principal causes of some high school teachers’ penchant for wide open assignments?” was surely one of them.
“Why don’t you write about something you are passionate about – say, the need for high school Latin?”
Believe it or not, my son has been convinced by his Classicist mother that the Western Empire is declining at the rate of retiring Latin teachers. But to no avail. He actually had his own idea.
“I think I’d like to write about how English classes should be about studying the structure of novels and not merely talking about what is going on in the novel,” he offered. I smiled. Like my elder son, and perhaps even like his father at that age, this one had an instinct for the teacher’s jugular.
“So what exactly do you mean by that?” I was careful not to shut him down right away. Something in the back of my mind was either warning me against crushing his ego, or urging me to let him run into the enemy fire so I could watch him dance.
“I mean, why do English teachers spend the entire class talking about whether so-and-so did the right thing, and whether we would do the same thing, when what English should really be about is talking about how the English is used? I mean, it is a study of English, not morals and stuff.”
English should be a study of English – what a novel idea. He should write an essay about that, I thought.
Why do we study English? I wondered. Rather than ask an English teacher – as a school principal I do have connections, after all – I reflected back on the previous night which was, as fate would have it, another episode of “English in our Lives”. Despite a freak storm that had sent countless – actually we counted five – vehicles into gutters across this fine city, I was racing to avoid the embarrassment of arriving at a church concert late. I wouldn’t have ordinarily feared any measure of opprobrium for appearing late at a church – I seem to recall it happening before – but my wife was scheduled to turn the pages for the piano accompanist, which is awfully difficult to manage when your fingers feel like icicles, you haven’t caught your breath when you appear on stage, and, oh yes, you haven’t yet been introduced to the pianist or the music.
As luck would have it, the storm that had entertained us for the past 40 minutes had had the same effect on other would-be audience members, and so I actually had a few moments to nestle into my most upright oaken pew and pore over the evening’s programme before the concert got underway, some ten minutes late. As though God was having a joke on us, the tenor had chosen Schubert’s Die Winterreise, “Winter’s Journey”, to sing that night. As my smirk faded, I began to read through the English translation of the 24 poems, which Schubert’s music would bring to life. The poems, by German poet, Wilhelm Müller, were, as someone suggested to me, ‘over the top’, but what struck me was how powerfully poetry plays upon the imagination and emotions, and how infrequently we consider inviting poetry into our lives. Did I really have to experience the modern urban version of the ‘Winter Journey’ to reach an experience of language as art? But more to the point, could a proper education in English form the requisite journey to a land where ‘language as art’ could be a common everyday experience?
So often when we hear a defense of the arts, we think of a place where art is preserved, not lived – art galleries, concert halls, libraries and museums of every description. At one time I believed that you studied the arts to be able to appreciate what all our taxes had paid for. Only those who had taken the pains to distinguish between chiaroscuro and mere contrast could truly experience Rembrandt’s genius when standing before one of his masterpieces. Only by reading the canon could one hope to know when one was reading literature and not mere drivel. But I am not convinced that the point of an education in English or the arts is merely to develop artistic judgement, although it certainly is a worthy by-product.
Nor do I think that the raison d’être for English courses, and the arts generally, is to render us able to make a living by producing novels, canvases, musical pieces or performances. Although many of us may entertain ourselves – but perhaps no one else – at the piano or guitar, it is generally rare for adults to paint, sculpt, dance, act, play or creatively write, despite years of slopping paint on large brownish sheets of paper, trying to conjure up short stories and poems out of our seemingly empty heads, and blowing a horn or banging a drum until our parents could bear no more. No, an education in the arts does not make performing artists of us all – nor should we expect it to.
I actually think that the effect of a good education in literature and the arts is to allow us to experience the world as art, and not merely when we are dragging our leaden feet through endless rooms of heavily framed Dutch masters, or pinching ourselves to stay awake while the orchestra launches into the third recapitulation of the second theme. A good education in the arts will help us to make all our experiences artful. It will free us from long lines at airports as we marvel at the texture that emerges unsolicited from the gray terrazzo floors. A good English teacher will enable us to imagine the life that lies behind the expressionless face of the checkout girl, or hear the eternal beauty of the recitation of prayers in our church, mosque or synagogue. A life of learning music has filled my every moment with musical potential. A simple act, like striking my toothbrush against the sink four times, can evoke the beginning timpani beat of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Moreover, our every emotion has a host of musical expressions, which lie just below the surface, giving voice to our many moods. An arts education is about more than enhancing the scattered moments of entertainment; it has the potential to give our lives a whole other dimension.
Ideally, if we have been well educated in the arts, our resulting view of the world will encourage us to engage with the world as artists, which isn’t to say that we’ll sing our arguments to the scowling judge, or paint our impressions of last year’s financial statements before the board. If we experience the world as imbued with the potential for beauty, harmony, rhythm, and meaningful patterns, we are more apt to bring these to the surface for others to see and hear.
In fact, one might even suggest that it is our duty to do so. For those of us who have had an education that has sensitized us to a world as art, we would do well to lay bare the world’s riches. Don’t keep your artistic moments to yourself. Talk of beauty. Help others to see patterns. Tap the imaginative potential of your best friend or spouse. We need to share our world as art in order to entice others to embrace that world.
But to do so, I find, requires us to continually challenge ourselves to re-imagine the world in new artistic ways. Thus, as it turns out, it is important to visit art galleries, read good literature and attend the ballet. For just as important as it is for our children to receive an education in literature and the arts, it is equally important that our artistic education not end at the age of 18. By immersing ourselves in the arts whenever possible we open our hearts and minds to develop fresh perspectives worthy of sharing. Time and again we hear a call for an education that leads to innovative approaches to the world’s staggering problems – a strong arts and literature education may be just the place to begin.
And that’s where my son is right. English teachers can’t shy away from the meat of what they teach. It may be palatable for students to feed on a diet of movie clips and discussions about what they already know, but if we really want students to come up with innovative solutions to the world’s problems, we have to do better than that. We have to give students the opportunity to experience literature at its very best, to examine the ways in which language becomes art, and to discover how they too, can harness that art to achieve their deepest imaginings and help fulfill our greatest dreams.