Art & Tolerance are Basic

Brenda and I are rolling down the rails on the Silver Star, bound for New York City, where I’ll be speaking at the ERB conference tomorrow (pdf). It’s relaxing and romantic, and aside from rail work being done north of Raleigh, necessitating a bus ride for about 30 people from the city to the train station in Rocky Mount (and the fact that the bus driver got lost twice), it has been a trip without adventure — and this is a good thing right now.

What’s gotten me thinking and wanting to blog is the many small towns that we are riding through, beautifully picturesque small towns, and the sadness of seeing boarded up storefronts. Some of the towns are just next to completely abandoned. It reminds me of the town I grew up in. When I graduated, a majority of my classmates were going right into the sixteen mills in that town, destined for 35 years as lint-heads, not a bad life, and retiring with a pension and lots of grand children. All of those mills are gone now, as well as the trucking company that was headquartered there. The town continues to thrive, but its years are numbered as its children leave. It is a beautiful town, exactly what the new style of open mall is trying to emulate.

This is the issue that Richard Florida talked about here in Raleigh about a year ago, and the topic of his latest book, The Flight of the Creative Class. The children of these towns leave because they see no future there. If they see no future there, then we are not doing our jobs. The fact is that there is almost nothing that I do professionally in Raleigh that I could not do as easily in my home town. The only disadvantage would be a farther drive to the airport — and proximity to an airport is a unique condition of how I make a living.

First of all, we should be teaching our children that because of the revolution in information and communication technologies, they can be creative contributors to their communities, local and global, from their small towns. Many people do it. We should be teaching this.

Secondly, Florida discussed two aspects of where creative people live that were not intuitive, but surfaced to the top of his research into why the creative class is gravitating to certainly places (NYC and San Francisco, to mention only two in my country). One of those was aesthetic appeal. San Francisco is a beautiful city, as is New York. But so is my own home town. It is in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and from certain spots you can see them, purple in the distance. There was also a rich musical heritage in my town, where a giant blue-grass music festival was held for decades, talked about all over western North Carolina. It was long gone by the time I was born, but it was a heritage that should have been celebrated as part of the aesthetic appeal of the community. Are we teaching the beauty of where we live in our schools? Are we using our schooling to help make our communities more beautiful. Is this seen as a problem that we have any influence over? I think that we do. It’s why music and art must be seen as basics in our children’s education experience, not secondary to the workbot curriculum.

Third, and this is the real toughie. Florida says that the other factor that seems to draw creative people is openness, a freedom to express yourself, to be yourself. I’m not sure how to teach tolerance, how to include it in your curriculum. But I suspect that those teachers who are willing and able to give their students the opportunities to express their ideas and to engage in conversations about their experiences, their desires, their impressions and insights, withing and beyond their classrooms are possibly trail-blazing a path for us.

Just 2¢ Worth!

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11 thoughts on “Art & Tolerance are Basic”

  1. I also grew up in a small town (in Iowa) and I share your opinion. However, even in the context of today’s technology, I think it is still difficult to keep young people close to home. I went to college in the 70s and majored in journalism because I wanted to be reporter. Being a reporter in my hometown would mean covering small-town news for a weekly newspaper or a low-powered radio station, neither of which could provide the salary or professional challenges that could compete with what I could earn in a larger city. Even in today’s Web. 2.0 world, I would still need to physically be in a larger city to have a rewarding career.

  2. I teach theatre at the college level, and so my students naturally think of NYC or LA when they think about their future. But those places are becoming almost impossible for artists to live in given the cost of living. I keep looking at these small towns as opportunities for theatre people with a new business model that is more community-based — possible with venues in several such small towns. Anyway, as you note, from a technological standpoint, there is no reason why people have to journey to the Big City, except that the mythology hammered home by popular culture portrays the small town as undesirable if you have “ambition.” It is really, really misleading, and sad.

  3. Similar changes continue in my small town as the timber industry declines and mills close. And now the student population is reduced and predicted to continue that way for several more years as people look for family wage jobs in metropolitan areas. But from my school I can look north across the Strait to Vancouver Island and Victoria or south to the forested and snow-covered Olympic Mountains, and the national park is within walking distance for my students. There’s an abundance of creative people, if guitar players and other musicians are a good indicator–any night of the week there is a jam/open mic somewhere in town. My impression is that tolerance is on the rise.

  4. I think we need to fund art based community projects that value the role of arts and society while allowing community members to engage in real dialog. Many public art projects miss the mark and just don’t grab the imagination of the people who view it. Often even if there is a public arts space the term “art” is so narrow that it seems less liberating than no art at all. It’s great to memorialize important events and important people, but the monuments need to start converstations and not end them.

    But I’m biased

  5. Hi!
    I am an education student in Saskatchewan, Canada. I feel the same way you do on this issue. In Canada everyone flocks to B.C., Alberta, or Ontario because they are seen as the “Provinces of Opportunity” in Canada’s economic boom. More and more young people not staying in the smaller cities like Regina, Saskatoon or Melville Saskatchewan because they believe there is no future for them there. So because Alberta, B.C or Ontario promise these HUGE opportunities for young people, naturally everyone is heading in those directions. The problem with this now, is our central and the Maritime Provinces are left with many job postions to fill, especially in Trade/Construction work! We are starting to have an epidemic lack of tradesmen and factory workers. Alberta is calling everyone to move there, with their promising adds . . . but then the sad part is when people do – the cost of living is so high that many of them become homeless even with full-time jobs. It’s also to the point where Alberta cannot keep up with its economic growth either – restaurants and stores end up closing down because they don’t have enough hired help. In the end, many people end up coming back to the Central Provinces because cost of living is much more affordable.

    My cousin from California said the cost of living in L.A. is just astronomical! People are signing Interest forms instead of being able to establish an actual mortage! So they end up paying only the interest for the remainder of their contract. How awful is that? I think Canada is getting very close to this point as well. How far does the pendulem have to swing before we wake up and realize things cannot continue this way?! How are the big corps going to keep making their money if people keep running out of money? Something has to give.

    Why aren’t large companies building their factories in smaller towns, I ask? Surely it’s not for lack of space, and would it not be cheaper?? It would also help that community to grow economically and create more jobs for the people! But what’s happening – they’re building their call centres in India and Mexico. Sure it’s great those people to get jobs, but what about the many people in our own countries?!

  6. David, you mentioned community tolerance as one of the key factors that allows certain areas to attract and retain talented employees. I’m a big fan of Florida’s work and think he’s right on, at least for the next decade or two of our society. Unfortunately, I don’t think that most small towns are known for their tolerance of creativity, diversity, openness, difference, etc. – not many small towns are going to rate high on Florida’s creativity index (nor are they going to rate high on his technology index).Therein lies the dilemma…

  7. My husband John a Superintendent in CA recently got busy reading the Florida books I got him from a local librarian who got them for me. Children as National treasures, nurturing creativity, teaching tolerance as pieces of economic necessity…very good…actually close to a kind of thing one can be proud of to say if it got translated into schools….. over the kind of thing i see out here in NCLB in my Underperforming context….you could get to something worthy of a national focus. I’m taking a bit and pasting it here from my husband kind of commenting on the Florida book…it violates loads of etiquette i’m told to write so much but it seems to fit what I read here and you can always just erase…to me it fit the thoughts…..sarah….

    “recently, you gave me a book that the local librarian gave you to read on your weekly excursions with your first graders. It’s a particular economist’s take on what’s going on in the world since the 1950’s. He suggests that out of the ashes of WWII, the 50’s and a blending of the bohemians, the protestant work ethic folks, and the information age explosion, has come a new class of people. And that people is us. The so-called “creative class.”

    The book suggests that our economy and culture currently values creativity over all things. That creativity is the engine of the economy and that our culture is turning away from a focus on big companies, church, and family and towards individual people and their much broader network of relationships. I think the book is excellent food for thought, though I take it as a text written by an economist…ergo based on some assumptions I can’t share, it certainly is hitting on an aspect of culture change I have been feeling and riding the last twenty years as a professional educator and garage artist and musician.

    In our time of late youth, the early 80’s, the new corporate world was hailing the value of the liberal arts major, who was well grounded in many things and able to creatively problem solve and work together in groups. I don’t know if they went all the way to saying that artists are what we need to get us all rich in American corporations or not, but some of the heroes of the media at the time were musicians and former artists, David Bowie among them.

    Since that time, as we came together in the world of education work, I know that we both never really left our own artist ways as we did the teaching work and that as I went into administration, and organization and school culture work, I have come to understand that our previous ways of working as artists, and our world views related to this orientation, have been applied successfully in many ways to teaching and schooling.
    I’d say, this entire country and the schools within might consider Richard Floridas’ ( still utilitarian) suggestions that the new economic engine is our nation’s creativity index. A some total of the nation’s technological capacity, talent, and tolerance. Florida suggests that this country taps into only 30% of its populace’s creativity… and leaves the remaining 70% to blindly pursue wages instead of innovation and creativity in its many varied forms. Florida’s new econometric principles seem to work work for all parties involved…… treat kids and the stuff we make them do with the utmost care and focus them on creativity because they are the new engine of the machine…. This theory suggests a stuff for K-12 schools and universities that is likely to make everybody happy, the underdogs, the arts folks, the utilitarianist, and the rest of the kit and kaboodle because it redefines learning and human capital in a fun way……there is room in this view for all the politics and all the points of view and we can all feel good about the associated solutions connected to the theory.. that is hold all kids in high regard, give them lots of time for the arts, problem solving, and authentic work and help their parents economically and otherwaise with raising them up to be the most creative they can be…….

    In addition, teach them use and develop cutting edge technology and teach them to be tolerant of difference and too see these three items,, technology, talent, and tolerance as the stuff they have to conjur into their own development, their own regional community developmentand the nation’s development.

    if we did take this path, I would suggest that the standards we’d create together would likely be as tolerant as the pillar we intend to uphold…

    On a final thought about standards, however, and inparticular, the algebra in 8th grade standard. While we work towards our ideals, and while we work to develop rhetoric that seeks to sway minds and ultimately change policy and practice, our children are here in the real world of the now. recently i have taken my lead on this issue from the work of Robert Moses (civil rights leader turned Algebra project activist). I have taken the tack, that our school we seek to help every child succeed in Algebra by the 8th grade and others in 7th grade. Succeed in terms of their ability to score well on tests, to apply alegbra to authentic problems, to feel confident in their computational, algorhythmic, conceptual, academic, and social senses. I have decided that the research on the academic and workforce related correlations between algebra success and economic and academic empowerment are too compelling to overlook and I have decided that we can do this work without detriment to individual students. I have decided that with great teaching, and great support, and great levels of interactions among school, child, and parent that this pursuit is truly worth it for all students, regardless of whether a student achieves the end result in its totality at this particular temporal benchmark. if not now, then when? and if not for all, why not? It is the kids in the bronx that I want more than anyone else to do algebra and do it well. It could be something else, the stuff that is, but algebra is what’s at the cross roads of ideology and economic reality. if we are going to use blunt force instruments in our schooling stuff…then why not algebra and geometry…. the stuff of classically deep beauty and the stuff of the structures of human cognitive activity, perhaps the stuff of the intelligence of the universe. Is college for everyone, I wish it was, is learning for everyone, need it happen in college, no, but as Florida suggests, colleges might oprovide us the greatest proving grounds for growing technology, talent and tolerance in our society, the test beds…….

    So I say the kid in the bronx needs to succeed at algebra and perhaps I say it for many different reasons than other proponents of the same standard, but Robert Moses ain’t bad company on this one I think….

    I’d say that if we teach kids to be artists and/or teach teachers to be artists… artists of their life, artists of their studenting, of their teaching, than we are teaching them many things at once. Things that will be useful, things that are utilitarian, things that are adaptable to other tasks and contexts, things that can be painful and joyful, etc…

    I think it’s a good pair of glasses to wear.. if it helps us teach kids to read, think, create, express, relate, know….

    And I know that recently, the accountability dogma and the common controlling institutional responses that we are seeing schools and school systems turn to under political fire, is making you sick. They are cramping your style, effective or not, and they are, more heinously in your eyes,eliminating opportunities for the “underperforming” (poor and dark-skinned American children) to learn to be creative, to be engaged and active in school. I know that you are mourning and fighting against the fact that “ they don’t teach art in the schools no more” (a lyric from a song I wrote). Worse, they don’t teach hope in the schools no more.

    The factory model, factory worker producer model of schools has taken over the landscape, the poor area landscape, while the clustered and living behind fences, and growing in numbers American elite makes donations to their local school’s foundations and pays for private lessons so their kids can learn to be creative so when they take over the next generation’s analytical information processing jobs they can be successful as they innovatively learn to invest their money and get out of the business of laboring for anything all together.

    So back to the book. “Creative class” we are perhaps. Yes, part boemian wanna bes and part work ethic driven compulsive and irrational consumers… but there is more to being an artist than this econometrically shallow vision of life.

    Recently, when giving a speech to an ACSA and Phi Delta Kappa crowd, I told the same old story of who I am and we are as a couple and where we came from and how this relates to education. First artists, then teachers, and what’s the difference anyway etc… Afterwards, a colleague and fellow superintendent gave her talk on what’s going on in her school and she talked about how her school gets the test scores and so much more, that they are concerned with helping kids make more than test scores, she mentioned that she works in an institution that helps kids make a “life.” I thought this was a good thing. I often think of living a life as a creative process, like I do just about everything that I can stand…. My speech talked about what we were doing at our school to bring poor kids more rich experiences and learning opportunities, more art, more music, and science and more access to the cultural elements that those they compete with in the society for the best lives that can be made in the econometric sense, and otherwise, know is of value. I talked about evening the playing field by making it as rich as an exquisite painting, I did this right after another colleagues speech about the troubles he was having with an under performing school in its 5th year of painful consequences rendered by the newly enlightened political education experts. These schools and their kids and teachers are doomed to more workbooks and tests, more texts with only decodables “Sam cat go”, see Sam cat go.” While the kids of the teachers and everyone else with wherewithal seek out meaning making and the love of learning for their children so they can be artful in making their lives.

    That’s what art has to do with it right now and always. It has everything to do with it….but I’d also say a science pair of glasses is a cool lens if it gets to the point where they verge on the same visions as the artist.. problem creating, solving, inquiry, technique, expression, seeking beauty etc….

    One thing has also been true in all of our classes over the years. Most all kids love to make art and look at art, even those who have had others drum it out of them. Wee have learned to bring them back from the dead. Who knows what that spark may light in other aspects of their life…

    We know that is unpredictable.”

    Rambling…maybe not of any worth but a couple of educators fumbling with Florida and some very fgood ideas to work from
    Somehow I thought of his talking when I read your words….

  8. I teach in the Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies at an engineering college (Colorado School of Mines), and am currently at work on my dissertation The Creative Organization of the University.

    I have found that Florida’s ideas on creative spaces (and much of contemporary management theory regarding Creative Organizations) is entirely applicable to the college writing classroom–in addition to the corporate/urban worlds.

    I’ve actually written a number of articles on my own blog (The State of Higher Education) regarding the applicability of Florida’s (and others’) Creative Class research to pedagogical approaches in Liberal Arts education.

    Sharing articles and interviews on the struggle to find skilled and creative workers, from the likes of Padmasree Warrior (CTO of Motorola)–with my engineering students has opened them to a whole new way of approaching their work…

    Dan Sargent
    The State of Higher Education
    My Bio Page

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