Thursday, April 7, 2011

arts and crafts

Anyone who has heard the expression, "Teaching is less a science than an art" raise your hands. All of you? Wonderful! And can any of you tell me what it means? Wow! So many hands. So many hands.

No wonder. It is one of the most common clichés about the work. And that, in turn, is probably because there is something about it that feels intuitively right. Which is not to say that a good teacher will not be informed by scientific research, especially in the fields of cognition and human development. That research, though, is only a tool to be made use of, the way a painter makes use of the rules of perspective or the properties of pigment on drying plaster. The act of planning a unit, or conducting a class, or designing a project is a highly personal one, engaging the teacher's intuitive, emotional, and aesthetic sides. Surely we have a right to consider ourselves artists.

I want to suggest, however, that there is a fundamental difference between teaching and making art, between what we might call (in a way that will be narrowly defined in a moment) the artistic temperament and the pedagogic temperament, a difference that expresses itself in every facet of life, not only the studio and the classroom. "Temperament" of course is a dangerous term, because it can suggest a kind of essentialism; one "is" an artist or one "is" an educator, as though that expressed a certain fundamental truth about the person. Perhaps instead of temperament we should say "stance," and at any given moment one chooses – consciously or not – to "stand" more or less as artist or as teacher.

But just what is an artist? Sometimes we use that term as an exclamation of skill: "She's no ordinary plumber. She's an artist." And often that sense of art-as-heightened-craft implies that the work has an aesthetic value beyond the needs of the task: "Did you see his suturing? That's not surgery, that's art."

The understanding that an artist is a master craftsman has an old and distinguished lineage. Aristotle taught that the ability of a work to appeal to our aesthetic or emotional sides was subject to certain principles, and an artist was "simply" someone who had mastered those principles and could put them to work. And John Ruskin, the 19th century critic, wrote movingly of anonymous masons and carpenters and glaziers whose craft made for the art of the Gothic cathedral.

At the same time, we know – we know – that that is not the whole story. Though there are advantages and disadvantages to both, no one would confuse being called an artist with being called a craftsman. The craftsman, after all, is subservient to the discipline while the true artist is subject to nothing save his or her own vision.

This approach has a respected pedigree as well. Plato insisted that whether one was or was not an artist had nothing to do with skill; an artist was simply a vehicle for a muse, much in the way that a biblical prophet was a vehicle for the spirit of God. And while the cult of real supernatural muses has been dormant for quite a while, the romantic image of the artist as someone who is in a kind of thrall to that inner voice is with us still. The understanding of that "voice" as something almost supernatural is so powerful that the trope of the artist not needing to follow ordinary manners or morals has been a cliché for well over a hundred years.

Although he was not writing about artists, Ahad HaAm understood the attraction of this model, and generations of young Jews have felt themselves inspired by his presentation of the prophet, committed to the pure and absolute Truth, in opposition to the Aaron the priest, the man of compromise and conciliation.

"My Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8) This experience, this urge, (or a non-religious version of it) is at the heart of what I call the artistic temperament or stance: I have a fire within me, and I must let it out; I am possessed of a singular vision, and I must express it. Not subject to the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of ed school courses and "teacher-proof" curricula, the real educator as artist-as-prophet.

The problem is that the prophets were lousy teachers. Holy men? Undoubtedly. Vehicles for God's message? To be sure. But if we judge a teacher by the impact she or he makes on the students, well, I don't know how they would fare. Indeed, the only prophet who can be said to be truly successful is Jonah, and he is the one who is least taken with his role as prophet. (Nathan is an interesting exception, but as prophet to a king, and not the people, he is in a different category.) It seems as though there is something about being a good prophet (or in secular terms, a capital ‘A' artist) which is inimical to being a good educator.

Why should that be? What is it about the artistic stance that gets in the way of teaching? I want to play for a minute with Ahad HaAm's paradigm of Prophet v. Priest. Judaism doesn't have priests any more, but Catholics do, and the Catholic "High Priest" so to speak is known by a number of terms. One of them, pontiff, comes from the title of the cultic head of ancient pagan Rome, pontifex maximus. The Great Bridgebuilder.

"Bridgebuilder" is a fine metaphor for a priest, but I think it's an even better one for a teacher, not least because it can be understood in many ways. Do you span the gulf between student and information? Do you make it possible for the student to cross over the bridge from her current condition to a future one? Are you the bridge? The builder? The ledge? But however the image is understood, the point is that the bridge is about getting from here to there. The builder's attention has to be focused on that other side. It is only then that she can begin to think about the look of the bridge.

If you were to ask people to visit a classroom in their mind's eye and then asked who was speaking, most of them (even teachers) would say, "the teacher." And teachers do need to speak, and to write, and to dance about the room, because teachers need to teach. So it is tempting for us to claim that artistic stance, to find what it is we most want, most need, to say. But if we want to be teachers, not artists, our concern must be with that other side. Not what we most want to say, but what the student most needs to learn. It is a stance of listening, not speaking; of getting one's vision from the other, not from within.

Taking the stance of the educator is a humbling discipline, because what we might most want to say doesn't really matter that much. What matters is finding a way of saying what those others most need to hear, and finding a way of saying it that can be heard. It's surely not prophecy, and it's not even Art. But doing it well is the work of a master craftsman. It's the work of a teacher.