Toward Human Ideals

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Eleanor Morse
March 14, 2016

Towards Human Ideals
The Role of Museums in Education

      While posing the question, what is the role of museums in the future of education, I see no way around addressing these fundamental questions first:

What is the purpose of education?
What is purpose of society?
What is the role of museums in society?

These questions are fundamental to our time. However, there are no easy answers. They implore us to assess our values and arrive at some form of mutual understanding. I believe this is the only way forward. This essay addresses each of the above questions sequentially. Rather than provide answers, the aim is to reframe our discussion of education, and second, illustrate how museums offer unique possibilities for change.

The Current Crisis

Throughout American history, there has been a bias toward the practical sciences versus theory and the arts. However, current generations worship scientific and technological advancement to an extreme. We live in a society where professors have to defend the value of a liberal arts education, where schools aim to become technical, training grounds for profitable careers, and where politicians actively encourage this development. Classes devoted to the arts are considered a waste of time and public resources. Meanwhile, museum struggle to survive. This is a sorry state of affairs and places American cultural institutions in a seemingly impossible situation.

The root of the problem is we are living in a global technocratic paradigm. We place an undue amount of faith in science and technology, believing they will fix the most pressing issues of our time. No one denies that advances in these fields have brought incredible benefits to our lives. The critique is of our default mode. The aims of science and technology are, consciously and unconsciously, shaping all aspects of our lives.[1] We simultaneously accept technological advances as “unmixed blessings,” products to be uncritically coveted and consumed, and as “neutral tools,” benefiting everyone equally.[2] However, we have ignored crucial questions involving the “direction, goals, meaning and social implications” of new technology[3] – at the cost of human values and quality of life. We currently view the world through a pair of lenses, which confines our sight to the methods of technology and blinds us to other possibilities. This is why we fail to see the “deepest roots of our present failures.”[4]

While art and technology are not mutually exclusive, the biases built into technology worship – utility, speed, and efficiency – run contrary to the values inherent in the arts. This helps explain the current crisis in the status of the arts. Science and mathematics, on the other hand, perfectly align with the technocratic paradigm. They are thus deemed more worthy of study. The following section examines how our education system reflects our dominant values.

Education Conversation

Educators, politicians, and parents alike believe that the best way to prepare children for today’s economy is to school them in the “STEM” disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Underlying this STEM approach are two basic assumptions: 1) The main purpose of school is economic utility, for children to take a useful place within the economy, 2) The belief that the best way to prepare kids for the current market demands is through specialization.

I dispute these assumptions on both ethical and practical grounds. The pragmatic argument is that the economy, and world at large, is too unpredictable to justify specialization. For the unforeseeable future, we will need creative approaches and independent thinkers. This will not be aided by increasingly narrowing the focus of study. Widespread specialization will result in many individuals capable within their field, but with tunnel vision, blind to the broader context and possible connections.

The second objection is individuals should not be treated as tools for the economy. The assumption that economic utility is the purpose of education is as uninspiring as it is misguided. Ken Robinson argues that “the basics of education” is not STEM or any group of subjects.[5] The basics of education are “the purposes for which we do this.”[6] All of our conversations about education revolve around the means, rarely the ends.[7] Yet, this is the most important discussion of all.

Purpose of Education

The enormous task before us is to give children a purpose for continuing their learning. This involves educating our children’s whole being, not just one side of their brain. In his TED talks, Ken Robinson posits some fascinating ideas about what the future of education could look like, ideas worth pursuing. The main takeaway is that fostering a child’s natural creativity is the most important thing we can do for him or her:

My contention is that all kids have talents and we squander them quite ruthlessly… We are now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this. He said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.[8]

All children have talents, which we are choosing to squander instead of helping them discover. This idea runs quite contrary to our current logic. The present education system rewards children for studying “practical” subjects and measures a child’s intelligence based upon an extremely narrow definition of academic ability. As Robinson points out, the consequence is that many smart, talented people think they’re not because what they are good at in school is either not valued or stigmatized.[9]

Thus, we must question the fundamental principles upon which we are educating our children. We could begin by reconstituting our “conception of human ecology” for the richness and diversity that it is.[10] The further we move away from our limited conception of intelligence to a more complex and expanded view of human capacity, the better off we will be. While the belief that individuals have unique talents they can bring to world is not new, its realization in education could be transformational.

The future of education means rethinking the traditional hierarchy of subjects in our schools. It also means doing what today is quite unfathomable: valuing the arts just as much as mathematics. Encouraging children to follow their natural curiosities and talents, in whatever subjects, ideally takes priority over performance outcomes in a few selected subjects. To quote cultural critic, Neil Postman: “At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.”[11]

Purpose of Society

By asking what is the purpose of education, we are by extension asked to consider what is the purpose of society. According to the way we live today, the answers would include: to make money, to invent new medicines and technologies, to overcome nature’s limitations, and to consume.

If we are truly content with these answers, then we will nod in agreement with those who insist we need more technical degrees and less liberal arts degrees. However, if you expose the root cause of many peoples’ fears, technical schools ultimately do not provide the stability and sense of purpose we crave. In other words, push children to learn technical skills and gain technical jobs. In five years, the very specialized skills students learned could be out of date and they will be out of a job. Not to mention, many will become dissatisfied and alienated workers.

Why are we asking children to conform their lives to the current market demands? The problem is not that we need more vocational schools. The problem is we are allowing our values to be dictated by the technology-driven economy instead of using our values to shape the structure of our society (and jobs). As a consequence, human beings have become “disposable,” degraded of their inherent worth. It is time to reframe our dominant way of assigning value in the world. This is where the role of museums in society comes in.

Leaders of Change

Museums can be leaders of change by offering a counter-environment to society’s reigning ideology. When museums feel they have to compete with forms of entertainment, they fall into the trap of relying on novelty and technology to attract visitors. This is exactly what must be avoided. For their own survival, museums need to counter the underlying logic of technology worship. Children are already over-stimulated, their attention pulled in all directions, on every platform. They are bombarded with out-of-context information and images everyday. In an environment that disorients us and disconnects us from the past, one of the most valuable things museums have to offer is meaning and coherence. Museums each present their own narrative about what it means to be human and what our greatest achievements are.[12] This is why the role of curator and critic are more important than ever. We need knowledgeable, sensitive, and open-minded individuals to help guide our focus to what is essential and see our place within a vast human narrative.

In addition, museums can lead through their commitment to the process of engagement. Holland Cotter observes that “accessibility” is what every museum director is currently espousing. The basic idea behind accessibility is simple: “more people should be able to see more art.”[13] Sounds straightforward. Yet, if we explore the motives behind this idea it becomes more complicated. Attracting a greater audience becomes wrapped up with institutional prestige. And, focusing on these outcomes obfuscates a deeper issue: lack of diversity within museums. “Accessibility” illustrates how technocratic logic has reduced a complex issue into a technical problem (access) with a technical solution (more access). Instead, museums should commit to making the invisible barriers, which exclude entire populations in our society, visible. One way is by openly discussing “political questions about which cultures get represented in museums and who gets to make the decisions.”[14] Museums can set an example for schools as spaces of engagement where meaning, rather than fixed, is discussed and contended.

Role of Museums

Museums can help us create the kind of public we want and offer a vision of the society we hope for. In other words, museums have the opportunity to see themselves as part of the solution to systemic social transformation. This commitment will require examining current practices, such as the over-reliance on galleries to fund museum exhibitions.[15] Unfortunately, museums are at a huge disadvantage. They need to negotiate the private-interest, consumerist, and technocratic forces that threaten their integrity. As a place of higher ideals, museums cannot afford to behave as if they are exempt from the ethical and political issues of our time. Postman says that public schools do not just serve a public, but create a public.[16] The same concept applies to public institutions like museums. Museums can realize their significant role in creating a public. The question then becomes what kind of public do we want to create?

Despite our present culture, museums show us it’s possible to experience life at a different pace. For instance, appreciating art requires slowing down and really looking at what’s in front of you. Museums not only offer a reprieve from our fast-paced world, they attune us to different levels of sensitivity and awareness. They thus face the challenge of countering distractions that permit mindlessness and hinder the experience. David Foster Wallace says the type of freedom that is never talked about, yet matters most, is “simple awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.”[17] This is why museums, and the public they create, are intimately tied to the heart of education. Education helps cultivate a student’s higher sensibilities and faculties. Students can learn to become aware and receptive to the realms of expression and feeling beyond what popular culture has to offer.[18] Most of us can agree that we do not want a public incapable of taking the time to think or seeing the beauty around us. In this way, museums exemplify an alternate way of experiencing the world, one that places human imagination, questions and feeling at its core.

 

 

 

Notes

1. Pope Francis, Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality (New York: First Melville House, 2015), 67.

2. Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Random House, 1992), 71.

3. Pope Francis, Encyclical on Climate Change, 69.

4. Ibid., 69.

5. The RSA, “How to Change Education – Ken Robinson,” YouTube video, 24:02, July 18, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEsZOnyQzxQ.

6. Ibid.

7. Neil Postman, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (New York: Random House, 1995), x.

8. TED, “Do Schools Kill Creativity? Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talks,” YouTube video, 20:03, January 6, 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Postman, The End of Education, x.

12. Ibid., 163-165.

13. Holland Cotter, “Tuning Out Digital Buzz, for an Intimate Communion With Art,” The New York Times, March 16, 2015.

14. Holland Cotter, “Lost in the Gallery-Industry Complex,” The New York Times, January 17, 2014.

15. For further discussion of this problem, see Robin Pogrebin, “Art Galleries Face Pressure to Fund Museums Shows,” The New York Times, March 7, 2016.

16. Postman, The End of Education, 18.

17. David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” Purdue University, May 21, 2005, http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf.

18. Postman, Technopoly, 197.

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