Vol. 3 | Art, Contemplation, and Pedagogy | Molly Beauregard

Art, Contemplation, and Pedagogy
/ Molly Beauregard

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.
- Zora Neale Hurston

The State of the Art

Just shy of one hundred years ago, during an equally tumultuous time in American history, President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. As part of the initiative known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), artists were employed to decorate buildings with murals, make sculptures, write poetry, and engage in theatrical performances. This expansive programming initiative served to further the democratization of the arts in the twentieth century by paying artists to create works that would enrich and enhance the lives of their fellow Americans. Jackson Pollack painted murals, Zora Neale Hurston documented stories, Studs Terkel practiced oral history techniques, Ralph Ellison trained his ear to hear dialogue, Eudora Welty took pictures.

This extraordinary expansion in the arts produced an environment that somehow validated the notion that the arts were in some way “good” for us, that the arts belonged to the masses - not just the social elites - and that the arts could be about anything at all. Think about it: Ralph Ellison and Studs Terkel out in the world chatting with regular folks in the name of the arts. Jackson Pollack painting the walls of the local post office. And Eudora Welty looking for the right shot to capture moments in the lives of regular folk. This expansion represented a democratization of sorts. It signaled to the world that everyone could participate in art making, art appreciation, and art education. It asserted that creating art for the people to appreciate was an end in and of itself that deserved monetary compensation. But then things got wonky. The WPA ended. Its participants went off with their new knowledge and broke all kinds of barriers. Painting post office murals seemed to inspire abstraction. Conversations in the deep south led to a literature devoted to the lived experience of race. Librarians brought the hill people down to the valley. And so on. Eventually, a fellow named Andy Warhol hung a painting of a Brillo Box on a gallery way, Christopher Lee Burden’s friend shot him in the arm, and Christo started wrapping large sculptures in fabric. The rest is history.

By the early nineties, the philosopher of art Arthur Danto had declared that art ended in the sixties, writing that “For art to exist there does not even have to be an object to look at and if there are objects in a gallery, they can look like anything at all.”1Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton University Press, 1997), 16. All the potential “ism’s” left the station, too. And thus, art - having nowhere to go - became attached to individual identity, personal motivation, and like all good things American - monetization. The question, fifty years hence, is if we may be reaching another tipping point in the art world when art and arts education might be reimagined yet again.

Life is a continued oscillation between expansion and contraction. The pendulum swinging back and forth, constantly seeking equilibrium. Moving too far in any one direction often produces an exaggerated retraction in the other. Push and pull. Like the ocean, cultural themes ebb and flow organically, responding to the feel of the times. Reflecting on the mission of the WPA, I find myself smiling at the irony. Set up as a work initiative, the WPA actually created pathways for artists to make art for the sake of art. The freedom of this experience expanded the notion of what art could be - as well as offering individuals the requisite 10,000 hours of mastery over medium.

History is littered with a plethora of definitions of art, paradigm-shifting ideas about the nature of creativity, and the rapidly changing attitudes of artists themselves. Art has always served as a mirror reflecting the times - the WPA example is no exception. We know that in ancient cultures, art was anonymous, as the concept of individuality did not yet exist. But, unsurprisingly, individualism has been at the heart of our modern understanding for centuries. As a sociologist, I have always been interested in the intersection between art and culture.

When I tell people that I teach at an art and design school, they immediately assume that I am a working artist. I never dispute their assumption. While I teach in the liberal arts department, I view my work as art. I envision culture as a tapestry of sorts - understanding how it is woven together allows us to see the ways our life patterns are entrenched in our society. As Emerson wrote, “But relations and connection are not somewhere and sometimes, but everywhere and always.”2Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Spiritual Emerson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008), 184. What excites me about sociology is that by investigating these connections we begin to understand how we fit in - or don’t fit in - with our culture, and by understanding how we are connected we gain the power to more clearly feel and grow empathy for ourselves and others.

Over the years, I have asked myself repeatedly: Is the way that I am teaching sociology inspiring my art and design students to understand their interconnection to each other and the broader world? Do these art students, who work so brilliantly with their hands and eyes, recognize that their lives are equally important works of art?

The State of Education

Educational models today function using mechanistic mandates that emphasize skill building. We generally measure our students’ learning and define their “progress” by results on tests and papers, class participation, and attendance. Numbers matter. There are a multitude of benefits to this model. However, our system is wildly out of balance. Our test-heavy, career-focused, outcome-oriented educational models have resulted in a profound loss of meaning for students. Learning for the sake of learning is invoked as an abstract concept, but it’s not a goal institutions are truly set up to pursue practically with their students. By emphasizing results and performance, I believe educators too often deny the validity of process. As a result, we erode any sense of meaning and purpose that should drive all inquiry and investigation - and art-making.

In my first book, Tuning the Student Mind: A Journey in Consciousness-Centered Education,3Cf. Molly Beauregard, Tuning the Student Mind: A Journey in Consciousness-Centered Education (Albany: SUNY Press, 2020). I compare the absurdity of these mechanistic models of education informing curricula pedagogy to the impact of a restaurant manager with no taste buds designing a menu. Someone with no sense of taste will evaluate what the menu looks like, how many minutes the salad takes to get to the table, and how many words the waiter uses when describing the specials. Similarly, the handwringing over grading rubrics, streamlined assignment postings, and attendance policies maintains evaluation as the primary goal of teaching from a management perspective. Additionally, and ironically, as these factors come into play, you need more and more managers to gather information, analyze data, and file accreditation reports. In this model, education becomes a hyper-bureaucracy: managers managing managers who manage administrators, and so on. Where do teachers fit into this equation? What impact does this ultimately have on student experience? And, importantly, when education becomes hyper-attuned to measurement and outcomes, how does it impact curricula development? What type of artists does this educational model send out into the world?

Part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the fact that it is challenging for any one person to clearly see the forces that strangle the educational process. Administrators, staff, and faculty remain silo-ed in their offices managing narrowly defined missions. Head-down, task-following, box-checking professionals managing assembly line production mandates. Additionally, it is important to remember higher education is embedded in an achievement-oriented culture. Thus, it’s a circular process, with students demanding to be trained for specific jobs in specific industries.

I recently bumped into an old friend of mine. She has a daughter in high school, and naturally, I asked what she was up to these days. My friend said to me - with great pride and a beautiful smile, “Oh, Lindsey is so thrilled. She is going to go to Michigan State next year to major in supply side management.” Wow. Maybe I just led a sheltered life, but I never knew anyone in high school who dreamed of being a supply-side manager. This comment is in no way intended to discount the value of supply-side managers or to dismiss the reality of seeking a more vocationally oriented degree. People need jobs. We need to keep our economy growing. There is a place for pragmatism and practicality in higher education. That said, the mechanistic model that informs most educational missions combined with a culture that values achievement over all else - with financial success often used as the yardstick for achievement - has rendered higher education moot to many. A degree merely provides a ticket to enter the carnival that is work.

Ironically, and perhaps surprisingly, this is true in art and design schools as well as more traditional institutions. And even in vocationally oriented majors, we see how quickly craft becomes detached from a sense of purpose. Several years ago, I was invited to attend a critique in the interior design department at CCS. We met at a large conference table on a sunny day in the spring. Each student spoke for approximately ten minutes, sharing a vision board and the various materials they had picked to design a proposed health center. All the students possessed the social acumen to a give a strong presentation. They offered justifications for material, color, and other design choices. But, at the end of the presentations, when asked questions about the types of services offered at the clinic or the type of patient they envisioned visiting the clinic, they were stumped. Each of them had designed a pie-in-the-sky clinic - an imaginary building that existed outside the constraints of community expectation, need, or limitation. These students were being trained to perform their craft well, but not to think about the deeper meanings behind what they would create.

This anecdote speaks to the limits of education in a vacuum. How do we teach students to change the world if we don’t also teach them the value of reading the world?

Some Theories of Education

The problems of traditional education curricula have been well documented. As the Brazilian philosopher of education, Paulo Freire, wrote in his 1972 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship - at any level, inside or outside of school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening Objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified.”4Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder, 1972), 67. More enlightened - or idealized - approaches to education have been offered as well. Consider Thomas Merton’s work “Learning to Live” (1969), which advocates for an education that shows a person how to define themselves authentically and spontaneously in relation to their world - rejecting the prefabricated definitions that the world offers.5Cf. Thomas Merton, “Learning to Live,” Love and Living (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 1979). Love and Living is a posthumously published … Merton reminds us that there is always a larger picture to be observed and framed than the meaninglessness of personal ambition. He believes in education that functions to help students to find themselves - or “save their souls” in order to save their society. Neil Postman, the communication scholar, echoes this sentiment, albeit in less lofty terms: “Without getting misty-eyed about it, I think we can fairly say that universities have a sacred responsibility to define for their society what is worthwhile knowledge.”6Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology and Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 3.

The philosopher and educationalist John Dewey believed that education is a social and interactive process wherein students should be encouraged to not only learn a predetermined set of skills but also how to live meaningfully in the world. Helping individuals reach their full potential, according to Dewey, requires teaching them how to contribute to the good of the whole. An important and sometimes overlooked fact is that while Dewey criticized the traditional separation of curriculum from experiential learning, he didn’t reject the idea of systematized knowledge. In fact, he believed that education should follow the path that leads from individual experience toward cumulative experience of humankind.7Cf. Dr. Elena Achkovska Leshkovska, Dr. Suzana Miovska Spaseva, “John Dewey’s Educational Theory and Educational Implications of Howard …  Dewey’s thinking illustrates an important point in the development of curricula: Should the mission of higher education be to ensure that students are prepared for work, or should the end goal be to help to create curious, life-long learners? And, importantly, is there a way to synthesize these goals?

The directive to “know thyself” permeates much of the American university experience. As professors and mentors, advisors and guidance counselors, we frequently tell our students to follow their passions and ambitions - to act upon what they “know” those inner strivings to be - and yet we too often ignore the role of reflection in the classroom. We ask our students to trust and follow their intuitions without teaching them to tap into intuition in the first place. We assume our students’ self-knowledge, even as we eliminate the pursuit of it at almost every turn.

As far back as one hundred years ago, the advent of the modern industrial age demanded an increased emphasis on science, technology, evaluation, and rational inquiry. Even the so-called softer fields like sociology, psychology, and philosophy have strived to discourage students from too much introspection in favor of data and empirical analysis. - Just one quick shout-out: Science works! We have science to thank for revolutionary advances in medicine, transportation, and technology. That said, science in the absence of meaning risks being devoid of morality. Furthermore, science that functions as a system of restraint - in the absence of systems of knowledge - denies us the full capacity of understanding.

But what happens when we tie the rigor of scientific inquiry to the open-ended messiness of self-inquiry? When we give individual students the experience of sharing their innermost truth with others? In my opinion, we nourish not just the mind, but the heart. Shifting the focus from “What do I want to do?” to “Who do I want to be?” reconnects students with their truest passions, jump-starting the process of true learning. The search for meaning, unlike the search for “answers,” demands that our students see their educations as dynamic and ongoing - not constricted by the fixed timelines of a particular course or a four-year degree. In short, encouraging a search for meaning in the classroom also promotes life-long learning and curiosity.

A Call for Contemplative Pedagogy

The most frequent comment I received after publishing Tuning the Student Mind, which takes the reader through a semester of my course and tells the story of how I created the course within the larger context of our educational system, regarded the way the book celebrated my personal teaching style. This comment came in the form of both a critique and a note of congratulations. It seemed that while many folks felt inspired by my teaching story, they didn’t recognize the book as a template for their own curriculum development.

In an interview, famed medical doctor and spiritualist Deepak Chopra celebrated my work by telling me that I was “part of a coming revolution.” A public relations executive later expressed his doubts that I would have success “selling” my book to a broad audience because the curriculum it heralded was too connected to my personality. He dismissed my ideas for a media campaign for consciousness-centered education by saying, “Molly, you can’t teach everywhere!” While I appreciated the supportive compliments, I felt they missed the mark. Tuning the Student Mind was never intended to be a book about me. It simply used my story as an illustrative example of consciousness-centered education in action.  I began to realize that what I am really trying to impart is an account of how to share consciousness as a pedagogic strategy, to outline the foundation for a heart-opening curriculum, a curriculum that would make no claims against existing educational templates but would seek to coexist with them. A curriculum based on the idea of consciousness as fundamental and dedicated to the process of enlivening, transmuting, engaging, and encouraging active participation with said consciousness as an undercurrent to the educational process. In this context, the critique that my personal teaching style can’t be replicated by others is valid, because an educational model that integrates subjectivity must take into account the teacher’s individual subjectivity as well. But I think it also misses one of the fundamental principles of consciousness-centered education: I can’t teach you to be me, but I can teach you to be you.

This is tricky work on a college campus. It has sometimes been said that creating new curriculum initiatives is akin to moving a graveyard down the street. All the old theorists must be dug up in order to justify any shift in perspective. People feel threatened when asked to question the “old mind” conditioned by traditional learning paradigms. And yet the world is littered with evidence from individual souls who insist that unless we experience an idea, we fall in bondage to it. Again and again, through the arc of history, we are offered examples of genius - including Pollock, Ellison, Hurston, and Welty - who share the same story: they lived the truth of their knowing. And in the process, they changed the world.

Consciousness-centered education merges science/rationality/intellectualism with deep, intuitive knowing/feeling. It encourages a new understanding of the power of relatedness - specifically the relationship between subjective, objective, and transcendent ways of knowing. Finally, consciousness-centered educational initiatives represent the synthesis of the two values educators hold most dear: preparing students for the world of work while supporting and developing the hearts and minds of curious, life-long learners. Ultimately, inviting contemplation and meditation into the classroom reaches for the goals Merton so beautifully outlined, solves for Freire’s astute critiques, and explodes the potential of this cultural crossroads moment.