3-7 March 2002 'education through art'

Festival Hall, London

...in the book stalls under Waterloo Bridge I found a copy of Education Through Art (Herbert Read, Faber & Faber, London 1943) - once one of my favourite books, most informative for me - but I've not seen a copy since the fifties or sixties...

His thesis: 'art should be the basis of education' (in all subjects!) is, he says, from Plato! I didn't remember that and it astonishes me, for what little I know of (Plato's) thoughts is that they are againstart and artists.

Read later refers to Republic, III, 401 - which is indeed about grace and harmony as bases of art and education - but Plato makes them compulsory!

As I read, I immediately envisage a profound re-appraisal of Plato, Goethe, Schiller, Coleridge, and Read, et al - the best theorists of 'imagination'. And thus rethinking again my 'tree of ideas' - as I used to do in the fifties. Why not?

This is a most timely finding - and yet again the South Bank provides 'all I need'.

Quotation from the preface to the third edition, 1956:
It is thirteen years since this book first appeared. A book which I first thought of as an academic treatise has established itself as a manifesto for much needed educational reforms.
And indeed its influence continues. There is by now an International Society for Education Through Art attracting teachers and psychologists from many countries... And now I remember that in the nineteen fifties it was this society that invited me several times to talk about my writings on automation and design - almost the only ones who did!

7 March 2002 further thoughts at the South Bank, and afterwards

I'm not going to type out the rest of those rather bitty notes... though the moment was connective and joyful...

...Perhaps I can write now my considered thoughts about all that (what Herbert Read's book led to, and failed to lead to) and about education generally - a topic I've been avoiding since I resigned from it in the seventies (*but see blue footnote).

Perhaps I can continue, in this moment before lunch, a connected picture of the whole thing - the failure of education, of politics, of business, of everything that is organised by administrative goals and hierarchies and without imagination, or trust?

OK, I'll attempt it - for if I cannot write of such huge themes briefly I may not be able to write of them at all (for this is as much as I can do). And the theme is not huge: only the organisations are huge - the actual processes of living and learning are quite intimate and interpersonal and should be (as I hope with Herbert Read and his admirable and hopeful followers): imaginative!

What I understood, in my brief re-appraisal of Education Through Art, was that the most essential part of his idea is to base education in all subjects not only on 'art' but on 'rhythm and harmony' (which apparently was Plato's idea also). And in this, and indeed in all actions 'seen as art', the essential language is that of 'kinaesthetic imagery' (or 'muscle memory' as it's now called by sports instructors and perhaps by musicians and by dancers, and by computer people to describe how one learns to make automatic the movements of fingers at keyboard and mouse for a new piece of software)...

Feichin O'Doherty (**see green footnote) once explained to me how all inputs to the body (for instance hearing or seeing) are first translated internally into the language or imagery of muscle movement before they can become outputs (such as speech, or writing). This is the unitary 'operating system' of the body, and thus the basis and the venue of 'integration' and 'interdisciplinarity', and 'connectiveness'. And this invisible and almost unspeakable medium of the 'body sense' (or kinaesthetic imagery) is the place where education happens. (Or one of them - there may be some rational faculty that is not muscular, at which formal education in the past has been overwhelmingly, and I think mistakenly, directed.)

(I don't know what all this is leading to - but it could be shocking!)

Next question: and why, if it's so right, and so human, and so well intended, and attempted by such gifted people, has education through artnot succeeded?

There was a time, in the 1930s, when it did - when most of infant education became play based and art based, and child-centred (thanks to Rousseau and Pestalozzi and Montessori and Froebel and Steiner and Sanderson and others I'm not remembering). And there was a later time, in the 1960s, when student revolution induced enthusiastic or nervous teachers to admit student-centeredness and voluntariness into university education, and perhaps even into the (forced) schooling of reluctant and misbehaving teen-agers. But since then, in the terrible 1980s, all this has collapsed and is now said to be the cause of crime, and of drug-taking, and illiteracy and innumeracy, and all such. And in reaction the most awful ways of educating and administering, based on goal-centered business methods and distrust, have become as fashionable as they are destructive of all that is 'personal', 'imaginative', and 'good' (some of the great immeasurables)!

I remember my horror, in the 1980s, at finding unacknowledged quotations from my writings about design appearing in official documents for the forcing of small children to learn industrial design as a purely rational and commercial process, divorced from imagination (whereas in my book Design Methods and related writings, from which the quotations came, I had always tried to integrate reason with imagination - and with self-awareness).

And I remember with sadness the 'behavioural goals' and other such administrative nonsense that were made compulsory parts of each 'course unit' at the Open University (from which I resigned, in protest at all such mechanisations of learning and of mind)... Oh dear, these are memories I'd rather not revive.

But whyhas this happened, in the late twentieth century, after all those good starts, those seeming successes of progressive education, in the primary schools at least? Was the theory incorrect?

14:30 But now I'm getting hungry so I'll eat and go walking before trying to answer those questions...

Evening. Before attempting to answer I must note what seems to me to be the main failure of education through art: it was only taken up by art teachers - but the strength of the idea was in making art the actual basis of teaching everything!

And at that point I begin to see why the idea has not flourished - it requires first the complete re-education of all teachers, and probably all parents, and school governors, in fact of all of us, before it can 'get off the ground'...

And not only the re-education of those in control of education but the making of all 'subjects', all specialisms, to be subservient to 'general education' (the province so far of enthusiasts and ignoramuses and fools). Was Herbert Read a fool? In the First World War he was twice decorated for bravery in the trench warfare that turned him towards pacifism and anarchism and led him to write this book, in the midst of the bombing raids of the Second World War. Were all the pioneers of progressive education fools, or else geniuses, are we all fools when we try to fight specialisation and efficient narrowness? In a way yes, but holy fools, I hope!...

But yes, it does seem that so far the only people to successfully realise broad education, based on art more than reason and utility, are those like J W Goethe, J J Rousseau, William Wordsworth, Herbert Read himself, - the ones who, despite the packaged education of schools and lessons, managed to educate themselves directly from nature, and from self-awareness, and by following the example of good artists, good scientists, and such. It won't work for the average person, it only works for the dedicated ones, say the pessimists, and they may even be right. In this divided culture they perhaps are!... In which case the direction is clear: change the culture - it's not static. Surely by now we know enough to make it respond to its own errors by the wayin which we discuss these questions and in howwe do anything, particularly art, particularly the media, and by how we walk and move and 'have our being'. For we arethe culture, each one of us, and what a mess we are making of it, this materialism, this commercialism, this deprivation and oppression of the majority of people in the world, this unfairness, this artless and destructive education, this orgnisational hell. What am I saying?

As a contrast to that, and as a relevant observation, here are some of the (slightly edited) notes I wrote that afternoon in the Festival Hall as I looked out of the window at a little paved area where a young man and a young woman were contending (not very successfully) with a strong-willed little boy of about two or three:

'...a 2 or 3 year old boy controlling his fashionably dressed parents - he is rushing to a line of small bollards - he wants to pat them like drums. The man misinterprets the boy's wish and tries to put him to stand on the flat top of a bollard (that would be the man's wish I guess, if he dared to do so in public) but the boy furiously shakes his legs and refuses.

'Later both man and woman walk away and wait for the child to stop 'drumming' and to join them. But the boy also stands still, trying to get the adults to come in the other direction, towards the river... They stand waiting for each other but no one moves.

'Eventually the child gives in and runs to them and they reward his obedience by each taking one of his hands and swinging him - like a swing in a park. But only once. The child then resumes control by letting his legs go limp so that he can't walk with them and so that they have to keep swinging him as they go out of sight...'

I was laughing as I wrote this - but I imagine that this so disjointed and unpleasant pattern continues in that little boy's interactions with those two people and it may determine his whole life... oh dear, poor child, poor adults, poor everyone... that's not the way to do it, without grace, without sustained rhythm, without 'art'! And it's nobody's fault - they're all victims of something - what is it?

Well, I could go on and on with this - for I wrote more, about the perhaps shaky psychological theories (on which Herbert Read bases his argument) and then of some chance samplings I made in a newspaper before me (about the Pope exorcising someone said to be possessed of devils, an then an advertisement telling people to invest in a new kind of mortgage). All these things (Herbert Read's theories, the remarks of psychologists about exorcism, the assumption that everyone believes that money is real and that paying interest is not evil) they all seemed to me to have something in common: they are all abstract entities in which various of us believe and on which we base actions. Even the man and the woman were doing that - if we assume that they were supported by current (abstract) rules or customs for child care in how they were treating that perhaps 'difficult' little boy...

At this point I fade out though I'm aware of not having answered all my questions - and so perhaps I'll return to this theme another day?... At least the footnotes seem useful - and concrete!

All that was much longer and more problematical than what I usually write here. It is an attempt at 'larger topics' and at 'more connectiveness'... Is it what I intended and do I want to write more things like this? Or is it too 'social' or too 'purposeful' to be good writing in itself, to be a pleasure to read, or even to be 'literature' or 'art'!

I shall wait and see what happens. For this process is not directed by conscious planning - it has an impetus of its own.

* I didn't quite resign from education for, between the years 1976 and 1999 I was a visiting teacher of art and design at the Henry van de Velde-institute in Antwerp where I was enabled, by the trust and encouragement of Vic Goyvaerts and Philippe Neerman, to teach free of hindrance in an improvised mixture of pure art and design methods...

Mostly this took the form of a week or two-week project in which each student was free to react as he or she chose to a very general topic like 'sound' 'light' 'movement' 'virtual reality', 'the four elements', or 'clouds', or 'sitting'. Each project began with formal methods of learning to collaborate creatively and to trust your intuitions and those of others. It ended with an exhibition of each person's reaction in any medium, paint, sculpture, audio, video, writing, performance etc. to the chosen topic. There was no evaluation - only formalised meetings for mutual encouragement and affirmation.

Later I adapted this method to the final year class - designing industrial products.

Nearly everyone seemed to like this kind of teaching and I have good memories of the quality of most people's work - once encouraged to do better things than they thought they could. 'It's not like me to do that' was the hoped-for reaction to what they did.

But I always insisted on strict following of the formal methods - to give each person the opportunity to 'consider the whole', not to be led astray by others, and yet to be enabled to use other minds in an autonomous way...

To provide such conditions for creative work - that is the role of the teacher (and of the administrator too, if he or she is up to it - but how many are?).

I used to say to myself and to others that everyone, not just artists and musicians etc, should be obliged to spend a year in an art school or a music college, or such. And particularly administrators and civil servants. Just think what government might be like if all the people employed in it had some conception and experience of art! ...But Adolf Hitler was an artist - and so was Winston Churchill - so perhaps this is wishful thinking.

**The one who taught me the significance of 'body movement imagery' was the late Monsignor E F O'Doherty, Professor of Psychology and Logic at University College, Dublin. Priest, theologian, student of Frederick Bartlett in experimental psychology, student of both of Jungian and Freudian psychologies and clinical psychologist himself, student of Jan Lukasiewicz in logic, theorist of creativity in art, pioneer of Ergonomics in Ireland, member of a United Nations Committee for Mental Health, assessor of the mental health of pilots in Aer Lingus... there is more of the same kind - a truly educated person, I'd say...

...and I see no reason why everyone's education cannot be so various and so comprehensive and so well-informed by good minds. For with the internet and such it is surely becomes possible for everyone, not just the lucky or the driven ones, or the so-called gifted ones, to learn and to live at this scale...

...Teachers as well as students, and all of us in all roles! Can you be a doctor for twenty minutes? And then an engineer, and an artist, and a child carer, and a cook, and a presenter, and a receptionist, and an accountant - what else? Why not - this is the age of the augmented brain and the celebration of the marvel of the nervous system, given the chance to extend itself and yours!

E F O'Doherty's informative and sobering review of theories of creativity appears in his transcribed talk 'Psychological aspects of the creative act' in Conference on design methods, London 1962, edited by J Christopher Jones and D G Thornley, Pergamon Press, Oxford 1963, pages 197 to 203.

(A slightly edited version of this text has appeared in the newsletter of ISEA, The International Society for Education Through Art.)

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© 2002 john chris jones

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