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EDUCATION, WILDNESS, DESIRE
".....This writing is not exempt. It remains like all writing, an absurd and revolting effort to make an impression on a world that will remain as unmoved as it is avid. If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you, I would let you know.”
-R. D. Laing
The Politics of Experience
DISCLAIMER: The following in no way contests the value, for students of all ages, of acquiring new behaviors and skills, achieving high test scores, or qualifying for a good job.
All of us have spent far too many hours in far too many classrooms - which look just like the generic classrooms on Linked-In or or in a Google search of the web. In these classrooms, the goal is to educate a skill; the environment is to provide technical and sustainable support. The pair of them - educator and classroom - seem to be tasked with making life as tolerable as possible on the way there; a trick slide and a joke, soothing colors, good acoustics, and hopefully some daylight. All towards meeting learning requirements, passing tests, imparting new skills, or - slightly more
ambitiously - raising awareness of a current topic. The central theme, the holy grail, is one's integration into the workforce.
If you think this is bad for you - a grown adult (and, if you are as old as I am, less likely to have suffered these indignities early on): Imagine how agonizingly boring it must be for children!
At some point, long before the turn of this century, the association of public education with desire, with impassioned action, and with sustainable life-long pleasure began to diminish; (along with our culture's commitment to the liberal arts, to
humanism, and, implicitly, the increasingly beset European Enlightenment).
This is not a small tragedy. At the very least, we have begun to deprive students of that reverberant network of expression, of ancient and resonant friends, that the catholicity of the liberal arts provides. I can write from experience and claim that these friends - in linked threads from Bach to Kaleo; from Plutarch to Houellebecq; from the cave paintings to Agnes Martin - have provided deep succor in moments that would otherwise have been profoundly empty, soul-less, and without a fellow-traveler in sight.
Co-habiting the world, with one's personal history on a parallel track with the arts and humanities - whether ancient or modern - inexplicably, creates a network that makes one's bell ring brighter, clearer; as if the fabric of time feels, at moments, divinely harmonious, in rhyme, in sync.
For example, it's one thing to 'get' the teachings - Lao Tsu, Socrates, Plato, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Ghandi. It's another, more resonant thing to plow sideways, tracing roots and shoots of these thinkers through our not-so-distant history - Thomas Paine, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Douglass, Whitman, the many lives of Lincoln, the Suffragettes, Dubois.
More resonant still is to keep a living-history company with them when facing the implacably high, thick walls of American racism. When, literally pressed up against these walls, Martin Luther King's trembling oratory called forth more than his personal hurt, or even the hurt of a people. He called in generations of friends who spoke to the better angels of humanity.
Mavis Staples, who had a well-studied hard-knocks education of her own, still calls in the same connections. For education is nothing but passion reaching intelligently across the whole span of what one knows. (In her case that intelligence extends to knowing an historic Movement's going nowhere unless you can dance to it.)
It's from this sort of connected passion, that skills are, incidentally, but inexorably built, that tests are passed, that jobs are created. Coming at it the other way around is spiritually meaningless.
For education to be a fiery thing, to light people up, a culture needs to make education - its context, delivery, and impacts - daring and beautiful; not pretty, but madly, divinely, ecstatically beautiful. Without beauty, education is hopeless.
Those who go deep enough into any field always find beauty, and, in finding it, they find, too, the engine of their continued development. It is as true for scientists, mathemeticians, engineers, builders, crafstman, and storekeepers, as it is for artists, musicians, writers, and philosophers.
Students know they need a guide as they bring new order to the universe, (for without an order - of some kind - there won't be beauty). They need the guidance of exemplary spirits, teachers who embody inspiration and truth-seeking in their own lives. And they also need enough room in their work - for being a student is hard
independent work - to develop the fire that will become their vocation, (voce), voice.
In some ways - with their innocent capacity for fear, courage, awe - children have a more vivid and primordial sense of what is at stake in each moment of a life than their adult guides. The existential stakes of the adventure stories and romances that children love are vital metaphors for the spiritual urgency that they would like to guide their own lives. (It's why the gifted ones find their families so boring. It's why barely post-adolescent boys - without having found any other calling - keep dressing in bright colors and going to war.)
The Danish mostly outdoor kindergarten addresses this longing very directly with an immersion in the fickle and not-always bucolic conditions of the living forest. (Here, too, can be found resonant life-long friendships with ancient animist beings as well as fellow-humans).
The Danish kids fight more readily than American kids, and make up quicker. They build and climb on things. They hurt themselves. But the value of independence and discovery is elevated, here, higher than the value of a zero-accident safety record.
Their education follows from direct physical engagement, not with static, predictable play structures, but with the fickle natural, social, and political world.
In the more dense urban conditions of Japan, pre-schools and kindergartens recognize the capacity of architecture and the environment to inspire healthy children to explore the world in three dimensions, to experience space, geometry, and topography as a liberating adventure.
These educational spaces do not exclude the discrete accommodation of the disabled - but neither do they require that every child's exploratory activities must be confined to flat terrain - (a principle that American schools have been driven to by both budget and fear of liability from literal interpretations ADA legislation).
[Shown here: Hakusui Nursery, Chiba - Yamazaki Kentaro Design Workshop (2), and Fuji Kindergarten, Tokyo - Tezuka (2).]
In the Italian Reggio Emilia model is a different, but no less concentrated vision of student engagement.
With a combination of structured tools and rules, listening carefully to students, collaboration, and perseverance over the time of a project, teachers steward their students to create individuated projects that are - on inspection - every bit the equal of adult endeavors, in sensitivity, discrimination, verve.
The credibility, and beauty of this creative work, (which reaches across all disciplines),
creates a feedback loop not of patronizing adult praise, but of discernible achievement that stun both young and old, nurturing self-worth and individual self-determination.
The architecture of the classroom - its finishes, volume, storage, and intricate visual order - is indispensable in lending credibility to the enterprise.
For the American architect, faced with public school standards that mandate a default classroom consisting of eight planes of drywall, vinyl tile, and T-grid - and only occasionally with storage - it is more difficult.
Overcome, as America has been, by the mantras against taxation, (the taxation which a progressive culture requires in order to have a future), public schools have plugged away with repair bonds and occasional new classrooms built to minimum standards. There seems little public interest in learning from these international experiments, or in trying our own ways - especially environmentally - to revere and inspire students differently.
In my work in public school architecture, there have been two distinctly fortunate exceptions (both of which I led while Design Principal at Gonzalez Goodale Architects):
-LAUSD's national Competition for a Prototype Flexible Academic Complex (first award). This project allowed a liberation from District Standard volumes, finishes, and planning templates - and modeled ways for new pedagogies to be ushered in with environments exuberant in light and volume, generous in storage, and allowing rich, flexible reconfigurations of space.
Organized as 4-sided permeable pods strung along an open-air 3-story bridge system, each of the module's floors has the capacity to form 2 separate classrooms with a central support core, or a single, large, open and re-configurable space. Most of the components are designed for off-site configuration, (with pre-approvals by DSA), and assembled on-site.
-Somis School's ongoing campaign to relocate its historic campus off of a high pressure subterranean gas line has been a remarkable exploration of community- responsive education. Planned for an adjacent plot of agricultural land, the school will allow offerings in farm-to-school education, resonant with both the region and the students, many of whom are the children of farm laborers. Their hands-on engagement in the means-of-production and all its connective tissues has been a guiding principle in the campus planning.
The great pleasure of this project, was working with the School's Principal and the District's Superintendent - Dr. Colleen Robertson; and with the community that supports her. With a minimum of resources, she works all the forces of student and teacher inspiration: Demonstrative affection for every student and family; A maintained aesthetic order to the school environment; Reliance on highly skilled consultants to bring ever-fresh ideas; and: A daily-communicated sense that education is both a beautiful discipline and a wildly fun endeavor. Despite the miserable, homogeneous state of national education, Colleen restores one's hopes in the single-person theory of history:
High-sprited people change things.