I want to make an analogy between art, literature, and mathematics. All three begin with a set of skills that must be learned in order to reach higher levels of expression. In literature, it is well understood that children must build a vocabulary and learn grammar, but few people would argue that excellence in grammar is what makes for a great writer. Certainly the best writers may use sophisticated grammatical constructs to express ideas, but there are many authors who are considered great who use fairly simple language. In contrast, there are many writers who excel in grammar, but have nothing interesting to say. We don’t judge an author this way. In previous posts, I’ve discussed the idea that mathematics has a similar structure, but that it is much less well understood by the public or the school system. People are much more likely to conflate being good at calculation with being good at mathematics. This is largely because most educated adults have read good literature, but very few have been exposed to good mathematics.
What about art? I would argue that (visual) art is treated in a way that is more similar to mathematics than to literature. We have the necessary focus on the craft of producing images, through drawing, painting, or photography. Many people conflate being good at drawing, for example, with being an artist. The craft of drawing or painting encompasses the ability to recreate in two dimensions that which we usually experience in three. It also includes the ability to accurately reproduce an image held in the mind on paper or canvas. There are many different styles of visual medium to be learned, and some children may reach very high levels of proficiency with these. Where we tend to fail, is in asking whether children have any ideas worth expressing.
There is certainly value in being able to accurately illustrate an idea, just as there is value in being able to communicate effectively through written word, or value in being able to accurately balance a checkbook. It makes sense to isolate this type of skill and value it as craftsmanship. In all three cases, we want to give our children the ability to work with skills in a way that solves the problems they face in daily life. We want them to take pride in a job well done. In all three cases, there are children with more natural talent than others, but almost anyone can achieve a fairly high level of proficiency through focused practice.
Art is a common enough word that the definition has become vague. Oftentimes the term is used to refer to what I am calling craftsmanship here. In this essay I want to be more specific and refer to art (visual art) as a visual expression of an idea. The craftsmanship involved refers to the quality of the expression. In considering art, however, the quality of the idea being expressed is also critical. Much as we may admire the quality of the sentence structure that a masterful author uses, we tend not to be interested unless the author is expressing something meaningful.
My point in belaboring this analogy is that I think we have good resources to teach the craftsmanship of art, but that very little thought is given to the quality of the ideas being expressed. How can we go about developing this quality in our children?
I’ve had several experiences recently that have got me thinking about this. I recently read through this speech with my son. In it, William Deresiewicz is speaking to the class at West Point about leadership. One of his main points is about the quality of leadership and the value of solitude in developing that quality.
I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. … So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.
“Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.” Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
Deresiewicz encourages the class that it is important to spend time developing ideas and character worth following. In many ways, we can think of art in terms of leadership. Worthwhile art expresses an idea that is worth an observer’s time to stop and consider. It adds something of value to the lives of those who experience it. Ideally, it broadens and enriches the lives of the audience.
Do we provide our children with the opportunity to develop a richness and depth of thought? Or are we trying to tightly control their experiences in order to collect achievements that we believe will be valuable in the next stage of their academic career? I have found it valuable to actively think about how to provide the experience of solitude and introspection. Beyond keeping scheduled activities under control and providing a quiet environment that encourages introspection, consider Deresiewicz’s description of solitude.
So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”
Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.
Are we spending enough time allowing our children to engage us in deep conversation that is directed by their thoughts and ideas? Or are we quick to turn the direction of the discussion back to things that we think are important or appropriate?
I have had a couple of conversations with other parents recently that have raised an interesting question. Are we developing these qualities in ourselves? As parents, we take the role of leadership in our families. Do we invest time in solitude and character development personally? As I’ve discussed previously, I believe that the best way to teach our children is through example. It is often challenging to find solitude as a parent. This is one area that Emily and I are still struggling with as we try to manage our busy lives.
I don’t have any answers or solutions here. I think that it is highly individualized and each parent must find the right balance for their family. I believe that it is something worth thinking about. Spend some time considering how you are enriching your children’s character and depth of thought so that they may have something worth expressing… and then spend some time just listening.