07 December 2008

Keep Learning

When I was a kid, my mother and a pianist friend created a program they called “Adventures with Music and Design.” Over the course of many years, they would take multi-day trips around the country to different schools, museums, or community centers, presenting their program, pieces of which were often beta-tested on my brother and me. At the time, I neither knew the word synesthesia or its meaning, and I’m not sure it was on my mother’s mind either. If I had known, it might have helped define some of the context for the program, which sought to connect the kind of intellectual and (almost) emotional dots between and across the borders of our observational, aesthetic, and artistic experience.

For example, the children’s song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is more than a collection of lyrics, and more than a snippet of music by Mozart (and more than the common melody for singing the English alphabet). Almost every element can be connected to some other level of sensory experience—from the difference between hearing the song on the piano or the guitar, to the ability to match up the pattern of the song with the outline of a particularly ornate building facade, or even the fact that the song’s lyrics call to mind something very specific (a star) that conveys implicitly a collection of shapes and colors (night time sky, bright white star). And if it seems like there is something Steiner-like in all this, well, yes; although again, I don’t think that this was top-of-mind for my mother, and certainly was not for me.

In the intervening years, a number of studies have shown the value of and connection between education in the arts and how children learn non-arts subjects. My mother’s program was definitely ahead of its time.

I think it’s fair to say that my absorption of art as a child had a tremendous impact on shaping my intellectual growth, but as the child of a museum director mine was hardly the average experience. As someone who now works in support of arts organizations, this has mostly seemed like a professional issue in recent years. I have seen the statistics from several of these studies, and the “proof” (as it were) looks solid. But promoting arts education is a challenge at the best of times. I think it’s simply too healthy for most news media, not filled with enough of the conflict needed to animate even a feature story.
Now, as a parent, this whole subject takes on a very different cast. Watching my child learn shapes, colors, sounds, music—and trying to help her make connections between each of these things—is fascinating, as both an observer and an encouraging-participant. The straightforward beginnings are just that, straightforward: one starts with colors and shapes, separately and together, and eventually that knowledge becomes such a part of us that we may forget we ever had to learn it, just as at a certain point I watched my daughter start to respond to those questions without much thinking. She is also physically responsive to music, as are most babies and young children I have ever seen; the desire to move one’s body to the rhythm seems absolutely innate (no matter how uncoordinated one might be).

The next threshold seems key: beginning to piece all of these elements together, not only because the connections one can make are enjoyable on their own, but because of the broader intellectual value that is born of the process. Sure, learning to hum “Twinkle, Twinkle” on a kazoo is funny—most things on a kazoo are funny—and being able to play it on a harmonica is … well, let’s call it an aspiration, if you’ll forgive the pun. Beyond that, though, our world is anything but static; it has biology, physics, and art embedded in it deeply, and anyone who has ever looked at the study works by Leonardo da Vinci knows that biology and physics can also be seen and expressed as art.

Learning that how the kazoo works may seem silly, but in doing so my daughter learns that there are different ways to expel air. Learning (as she apparently has) that the harmonica (unlike the kazoo) can be made to work by breathing both in and out also teaches more than just music making. And the seemingly ridiculous toy a friend gave us is anything but, combining tones, patterns, numbers, letters, colors, and shapes together. At the same time, the knowledge of and ability to identify colors and shapes seems to be playing an implicit role in her process of learning to identify numbers and letters. These can also have colors, and incorporate different shapes, and may have textures too. Some of this learning is clearly rote: “c” comes after “b” because that’s how the song goes. Yet it is evidently deeper than that, and I say not that to brag about my child but as a supporting witness to her process of learning.

I’m sure that my brother and I laughed at my mother; that’s what kids do. Fortunately, I have no specific memories of that, so no corresponding guilt. But also fortunately, the whole range of experiences seemed to seep through anyway. As a museum child, I learned not to fear the institutional authority those heavy, stone edifices were constructed to convey—to respect them, yes, but to be comfortable in them and to believe deeply in the importance of sharing the beautiful objects they hold within. More importantly, I came to understand the connections across and between objects and ideas in the world around me, a skill I use every day to link disparate but related subjects together: in this space, in my work, and now as a parent trying to pass some of this on to the next generation. I hope we can continue to provide an environment in which such learning not only takes place, but is simply second nature.


At 7:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey - Jerkface I gave her that toy. Your welcome.


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