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Visual thinking: the importance of the pedagogy of Art in an age of crisis

| September 11, 2010
By Michael Smith

In the 1949 British film noir classic The Third Man, mercurial character Harry Lime opines about the effect of social upheaval on culture: “Italy for 30 years under the Borgias had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but produced Michelangelo, Da Vinci and the Renaissance. Switzerland had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Though Lime’s selective historicising was shaky at least, there is a kernel of truth in this old chestnut: times of crisis seem to encourage lateral thinking. Social progress becomes unavoidable as the status quo is no longer viable; when this happens, lateral thinkers lead the way. But are our schools open to this?

Systems of thought and teaching need urgent review

The much-decried global recession has begun to precipitate complete social change. There should be an attendant shift in focus for education: systems of thought and teaching that supported the past’s slash-and-burn economics now need urgent review if education is to adjust proactively. What does that mean in real terms? Simply put, as teachers and as schools we need to alter the kinds of thinkers we intend to produce at high school level, to pupils that possess broader skills sets than simply knowing how to maximise profit.Education is not, and should never be, mere preparation for entering the workforce.

We live in an archly empirical age

Predictably, there is much resistance to this opinion: we live in an archly empirical age. Systematic thinking, exemplified by the sciences and economic subjects, is seamlessly connected to our sense of the world as a place to be quantified, tallied, accounted and thus regulated. And, of course, systematic thinking has obvious merits: our rapid progress as a species results in large measure from the ways we have made the world work for us. Each scientific or technological innovation builds on the previous one (and I, for one, am grateful for antibiotics and flat screen TVs!). But I sense that unfettered empiricism, without a counterbalance of creative thought and
work, is past its sell-by date.

What has the global recession meant for education?

The economic collapse and global recession have, by now, received comparable column inches dedicated to the breathless talking-up of wealth and excess characterising preceding decades. Suddenly, our culture is beset by the nagging anxiety that our fawning admiration for Donald Trump, Paris Hilton and My Super Sweet Sixteen (an MTV reality show in which wealthy teens on both sides of the Atlantic go all-out to secure ludicrously lavish 16th birthday parties) was the source of the problem. Our infatuation with wealth, and our economy’s insistence on bottom-line thinking, in their own way fed the unregulated greed of Wall Street and Paternoster Row (the home of London’s stock exchange), now indisputable as the genesis of the meltdown.

Yet what has the onset of the global crisis meant for education? So far, sadly little. The sciences and economic subjects, especially Accounting, still dominate the mindsets of parents, schools and universities. These analytical subject areas remain something of a yellow brick road, perceived as paths of certainty in the most economically
uncertain times.

Has our value system been jolted?

But to ignore the importance of the ways of thinking that the arts teach would be to opt for an education that puts too much currency in, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, simply “producing useful machines”. If the world’s economic crisis has any value, it should be to jolt our value system. First, it should awaken us to the myopia of a culture so besotted with wealth that our children look to shows like Gossip Girl – consumer culture nirvana – as sound ideologies on which to base their lives and aspirations.

Second, it should remind us that the central task of education isn’t to churn out compliant and capable drones with which to populate our workforce. (Where did slavish adherence to the system get masses of now-unemployed workers in cities from Johannesburg to Detroit, and everywhere in between? The men at the helm of the capitalist ship had left the wheel to count their cash, allowing their vessel and all who toil in it to run aground.) The true goal of teaching should be to reaffirm and foster the human being’s enthusiasm for meaning.

Art could give a culture in crisis so much more

This would seem counterintuitive to the fresh emphasis the government seems keen to place on numeracy and the sciences. And in its defence, government is duty-bound to redress the social inequalities that generations of substandard education have forced on much of our populace. Few could dispute the dire need in our country for graduates with marketable skills. But don’t all children – even those with pressing economic needs – deserve a rich, rounded education?

Despite the relative unpopularity of subjects that develop visual thinking, like Art and Design, I believe that, in combination with more analytical subjects, they represent a way out of the crisis. If we’re educating broadly, we stand a better chance of producing graduates who can make meaning with less. If, on the other hand, we continue to narrow our focus with the excuse of serving an empowerment agenda, we’re bound to replicate the limitations that put us here in the first place.

Despite its oligarchs’ thirst for blood, petty squabbles and (literally) Machiavellian politics, Renaissance society placed a premium on breadth of interest, on an educated person being a cultivated person. Art took its rightful place alongside literature, the sciences, architecture and mathematics as a lofty human pursuit. In modern times it seems to have been relegated to something of a sideshow, as tricksters the likes of Damien Hirst use its elaborate politics to chase money from the pockets of the über-wealthy.

But art could give a culture in crisis so much more. The ways of thinking and experiencing it generates – not just right-brain thought but a genuine integration of doing, making, feeling and thinking – should be more centrally placed in high school learning. Art imparts to learners what an esteemed colleague of mine, Marisa Maré, calls “the joys of creation, expression and achievement”. And that kind of security weathers economic storms far better.

Michael Smith is a writer, artist and Art educator at Maragon Private Schools, Ruimsig, Johannesburg. Contact him at


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