This is the text for the Welcome Address delivered at the symposium by Julia Cole:
Welcome to you all, but an especial welcome to anyone who took a chance coming here to this gathering, who risked uncertain outcomes and discomfort and came anyway. We want you to feel honored for joining this conversation, and so please let us know if there is any way we can increase your comfort and our hospitality.
As a preface to this event, I offer thanks to the peers, colleagues, students and teachers whom I have encountered in the twenty schools, colleges and universities I have belonged to throughout my life, who have treasured educational relationship, exchange and growth. In affirmation and in challenge, you brought me here today.
These are not ordinary times. We are not facing ordinary problems. Not just in education, but also in countless places throughout our cultures and environments, we are confronting the need for extraordinary change.
The path to engaging all other pressing matters must run through transformative education first, because we need to be able to collectively reason, feel and imagine our way out of this mess, and closed minds do not perform well in any of these areas.
Despite the urgency on so many fronts, I am hopeful. I look around the room and see extraordinary people who have committed time to meet and converse openly together. We are an inventive species by our nature, and can surely learn and collaborate our way out of anything – given enough time to do so.
To do that we need to talk, and we need to continue to converse often and with high priority.
The quote on the wall is one I have used in classes for some time. (Quote from Fernando Henrique Cardoso on Civil Society and Global Governance). It is based in the belief that human society is an endlessly unfinished process, and that the way that we decide how to act is through engagement in constant, shifting civil dialogue.
Being a teacher and being an artist are at heart very similar, because they share many processes in common. Among other things, they are both driven by generosity, a search for truthful expression, the invitation to think critically, and sensitivity to context. In an era in which time is money, both artists and teachers know that time is love.
Art has many forms, and also many functions. It can comfort, it can provoke, it can be familiar and it can confuse. Importantly, it can expand the way we know, and change the way we see. All those impressionist paintings that grace hotel rooms and greeting cards, and that sell out blockbuster shows at the museum, were publicly reviled less than a hundred years ago because they saw the world in a new way. The audience in Stravinsky’s first concerts fainted and ran screaming from the theater.
Contemporary art is difficult by its nature, and many people are afraid of its challenges. Equally, many artists and arts organizations still shy away from the idea of art having any kind of function, because this can, and often does, dull the edge of possibility. But, reconfiguring the places where appreciation and application of artistic process is missing from the world seems critical to me. Teaching creativity is fundamentally a political act, because it empowers people to be critical, to invent alternatives and then to build them.
We all know that the world is changing faster than our grandparents could have possibly grasped. And this is why it is so important that we grow strategies that welcome change, that invest in process.
Artists eat failure, consume it like nutrition. Fear too. And uncertainty is like the air we breathe – otherwise we would never be able to make anything new. Cultures and individuals who have not learned to love this state of not-knowing cannot be anything but hesitant and timid.
A culture cannot be afraid of change, but it must also have the capacity to critique itself. This is what artists do constantly, never assuming that any form is a singular or a final answer. By extension, a sense of multiple possibilities and the idea of constantly evolving process are the root of tolerance and curiosity in a culture and its people.
The rational, analytic, editing part of being human that our current ethos values so highly, is only part of the story. The rich fullness of what we can be includes our bodies and emotions too. We all know this through personal experience, and of course this is where love and faith, a sense of wonder, a feeling of having enough or of being happy, grow inside us. Artists specifically nourish our bodies and imaginations, often by deliberately bypassing the mind and rational experience.
In my personal encounters of learning things through the body first and then through thought, I have felt a flowering as in no other circumstance. You probably all have known this too. Sometimes the words may not come until late in a lifetime, sometimes the “understanding” part never comes, and things remain unnamable feelings forever. But huge, formless clouds of mystery, longing and compassion all create meaning in life and are part of being fully human.
You will find that the presentations you will encounter today and tomorrow will speak to all these functions of art. Some will comfort, others will provoke, challenge and mystify, and hopefully all will lead to moments of empowering vision – now or at an unexpected time in the future.
Some time over the course of our gathering, I invite you to visit with the installation I have made in the next gallery. As a contrast to May Tveit’s quiet archives in the corner, the opposite side of the room is a clamor of voices. I call this work the “Language of Love”, because it is about an unending, caring conversation that occurs between individuals throughout a lifetime, and the way that influences mold the formation of a self, both through giving and receiving.
It’s what an education looks like over the course of a life. In my case that involves a lot of school environments, and so this work represents quite directly many relationships developed as a student, peer or teacher in various educational settings. But all of us have this history in one way or another, mostly tucked into old shoeboxes under the bed. In this work you’ll see that some influences came from the family and culture I grew into, some from objects, places, and mentors that I encountered deliberately or quite randomly throughout life.
One thing that education specifically teaches us how to do is how to make some kind of sense of all this pressing in of influence, how to choose thoughtfully so that we are not only the shape of other people’s hands and minds, but also a personal, imaginative transformation of those circumstances. Which, to repeat myself, is what artists do.
The processes are so similar; it is a constant source of surprise to me that art is so often considered an add-on to an education and not the core understanding that guides exploration. This is not about “arts education”, but rather about the art of education, about an endlessly creative process that teaches towards a full and inventive life. Closing the gap between making art and living life in a creative way reveals that art is not just a vital component of a good education, it is a living model for it.
And that really is what we are here to discuss… If we look around at the world in which we find ourselves, what kind of educations would we choose to create to make sense of all the information we encounter, to empower us to make critical choices, and to help us be richly sentient human beings with a shot at meaningful and sustainable lives?
Thank you. Let’s talk.
Imaginative Reinvention of Education Symposium
Grand Arts, Kansas City
February 25, 2011
Acknowledgments: There are countless people without whom this symposium could not have happened. First and foremost is the generous and fearless institution known as Grand Arts, which is constantly seeking ways to explore what art is and can be. I am so grateful for this opportunity to explore the material that is of such importance to me. Thank you Margaret Silva and Stacy Switzer, and all the fabulous Grand Arts staff, thank you to all the presenters who struggled with this vast and slippery topic, and a huge thank you to Theresa Hitchcock who worked behind the scenes as a intern symposium assistant. There are many others, including my incredible husband, Leigh Rosser, to whom I owe enormous gratitude.