Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Arts Education Is Important to Balance

This is a recent article I wrote for Tribal College Journal's summer issue, vol. 18, no. 4, about the importance of the arts. You can subscribe and get information at this url (copyright Denise Low):

The issue also contains a very generous review by Jonathan Holden of my recent book Words of a Prairie Alchemist.

At Haskell Indian Nations University, the earthworks Medicine Wheel is a reminder of the balance of life. Art students and professors developed this natural installation of stones and mown grass in 1992. Its principles inform educational practices at Haskell. I appreciate how the Medicine Wheel supports all aspects of education. Intellectual, technological knowledge is represented by one direction of the wheel. Another side corresponds to physical education—and Haskell has a great sports tradition of Buster Charles, John Levi, Jim Thorpe, and Billy Mills, to name a few. Emotion and spirit are also represented by this philosophical model. Poetry and the arts especially address these realms of human experience.

As Poet Laureate for the state of Kansas 2007-2009, my primary charge will be to promote poetry, and I feel this means I begin at my home institution, where I am Interim Dean of Humanities and Arts. I also am an advocate for all the arts. As a dean, I observe how arts-related education provides essential balance to students’ lives, especially for Native students, but also non-Native students as well.

Much college instruction is preparation, not immediate accomplishment of goals. I was a first-generation college student, and I remember how disoriented I felt as I finished one semester and then another, heading into a vague future as an English major. I could not imagine what lay beyond a college degree. Especially freshman-sophomore years are demanding as students take distribution courses outside their fields. One Haskell art professor, tells me when students come to his class after spending hours in computer-based classes, they art class is the only one where they feel they are really doing anything “real.” Because poetry and other arts projects have beginnings and end results, these are classes where students can immediately apply techniques and finish final projects. At a time when retention efforts are paramount in the minds of faculty and administrators, this is, I think, an important lesson about helping students balance their schedules.

Arts education is synthetic, as opposed to analytic. Most often students practice critical thinking in classes—how to break down parts of a quadratic equation, for example. But in creating poetry or other artworks, students assemble ideas and create original, personally meaningful works. This divergent, nonlinear process provides for emotional expression. In addition, as students make choices about artworks, they reflect on who they are and how they order their lives. Just as cultures create meaningful stories, so individuals construct their own personal narratives. We are complicated beings, and the arts help us find direction. They help us understand our spiritual natures.

At the same time, arts-related courses encourage individuals to support each other in noncompetitive, cooperative ways. As an administrator, I find that good teamwork is one of the most essential needs for classrooms as well as academic department members. Pedagogy of arts classes includes a peer critique process. In poetry workshops, for example, students distribute copies of first drafts and listen to feedback from their classmates. Then they can review the comments and polish their poetic works. Students learn to respect unique points of view and encourage each other’s best efforts.

Arts students learn to respect diversity of styles. Their works are different from one other, not better or worse, aside from craft. Students appreciate the variety of solutions to an assignment, without numerical ranking. The arts field may seem a long ways from business and other commercial enterprises, but an important side benefit of arts classes is fostering group problem solving—social skills that are needed by tribal communities.

Poetry and many of the arts also present opportunities for public performance. Poetry appears to be so very personal, yet it connects to ceremonies, songs, and other community word arts. Haskell students, under the tutelage of Haskell faculty Trish Reeves and Lorene Williams, present readings of their original works at regional libraries, arts centers, conferences, coffee shops, and bookstores, as well as Haskell. They learn courage as they overcome their nervousness about speaking in public. They practice to become future leaders.

The arts encourage a compassionate spirit. I first learned this years ago when I taught a class Writing from Nature for children at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. I took youngsters to a nearby pond where we observed red-winged blackbirds, turtles, sunfish, squirrels, rabbits, and butterflies. Then I asked them to write from the point of view of one of these animals. This taught them to use their imagination, and in the process, they learned to empathize with their subjects. At Haskell, as our creative writing students develop writings about their classmates, their families, their culture, and their surroundings, they imagine them more fully. They appreciate the four life stages of the Medicine Wheel, from childhood to old age, and they can imagine where they fit into them. With arts experience, students come to articulate for themselves their own values and spiritual beliefs.

Creation of art does demands discipline. Linear thinking is important in creating symmetry and craft. A poet or artist uses various intelligences in order to form a compressed piece of writing or object that reflects life. Elliot W. Eisner comments in his book Arts and the Creation of Mind: “Painting well requires thinking well” (232). Children indeed can create art, yet as student thinking matures, so do the products.

Education in poetry or other art forms is difficult to assess. Outcomes do not meet a single benchmark standard, and although some accomplishment occurs by the end of a semester, the ultimate outcome may be years in the future. Development of an aesthetic sense brings a lifetime of joy. As dean, I can measure the fact that creative writing, photography, graphic arts, drawing, and ceramics classes fill to capacity each semester. I often turn to the works of N. Scott Momaday, who explores the importance of the literary oral tradition to survival of sovereign tribal nations. He considers himself a “man made of words” as well as a painter.

Throughout the next few years as Kansas Poet Laureate, I will return to the wisdom embodied by the Haskell Medicine Wheel and attempt to understand how body, emotions, mind, and spirit can be part of each student’s educational experience. I hope to present this message of balance to Haskell and communities throughout the state.