I don’t think it’s a good idea generally to begin anything with a disclaimer, but as it’s not unusual to assume that the writer of a blog article knows what he or she is talking about, I feel that perhaps it’s the way to go in this case.
So here’s my disclaimer: This blog entry is not about what I know; it’s about what I want to know. What I’ve been thinking about, reading about. It’s been the topic of many recent conversations with more than a handful of people. It’s cropped up more than rarely in the most unusual ways at the most unusual times. I tried to think of something else to write about but this topic keeps shouting at me, reminding me with more than gentle urgings, I’m important. Seek me out.
We speak often of the ideas of Mason’s philosophy – how they do much more than wander around the mere edges of our educational practices. They reach in to deeper places, even the nooks and crannies, shining a light on hidden things, things which, if they kept themselves comfortably enclosed in the darkness, I suspect I would find it much easier going.
So what am I talking about? What keeps knocking at the heart of my mind? It’s the idea of the idea.
As Mason herself said, “What is an idea? we ask and we find ourselves plunged beyond our depth” (PoE, 105). In more than one of her volumes she speaks about ideas as live entities: ideas strike, seize, catch hold of, possess us . . . dynamic images indeed.
I overheard someone once say that it is especially important to introduce students to the greatest artists and composers because all that is great in the artistic realm has already been accomplished. While I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of the statement, I cannot for even a moment, begin to entertain the thought that all that is great has already been done. And yet, I couldn’t help wondering what my own students thought.
And so the dialogue began. There was a notion that creativity – powerful, reckless, compelling creativity is a thing of yesteryear. When all the artists, authors, scientists, composers, poets, mathematicians, playwrights, inventors studied are from a bygone era the implication seems clear. Somewhere along the way, through avenues probably many and varied, many of the children (and adults for that matter) have come to believe the statement declaring, “the best of man’s work has been accomplished” or “leave it to others more gifted than you.” Even though we read about van Gogh copying the works of Rembrandt and Millet in order to lay a foundation for his own original work as an artist, it didn’t seem to translate to the children on a personal level.
We are tied irrevocably and wonderfully to the past. I love doing Shakespeare plays with my students. It is an important aspect of their education and many of us have experienced the joys when they play with the play. It is even more wonderful though, when we can hear the past minds shouting to us: go on, take what we’ve given you and go further. Ideas beget new ideas “An idea is more than an image or a picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force-with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its own kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas” (Mason, HE, 173).
I began to ask myself whether the ideas we were encountering through our books, our things, our conversations with one another were begetting and begetting and begetting other ideas.
Mason exhorted us to “treat children in this reasonable way, mind to mind; not so much the mind of the teacher to that of the child . . . but the minds of a score of thinkers who meet the children, mind to mind, in their several books, the teacher performing the graceful office of presenting the one enthusiastic mind to the other” (PoE, 261).
Being part of the Great Conversation is indeed great, but what is its end? In The Great Conversation Revisited, Mortimer Adler states, “What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only hearken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways” (28).
Part of what makes the Great Conversation so grand is that the conversation does not end with just a commenting upon it (even in a variety of ways) but by actually and literally continuing the conversation ourselves. Living in such a way that the conversation deepens, expands. We carry on not only the ideas of those who trod before us, but we struggle like Jacob, wrestling for the blessing – the gift of the divine Spark within us that enlightens, inspires and urges us to be who we were created to be – in part, creators.
Rilke speaks of this in his poem, As Once the Winged Energy of Delight:
As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
To work with things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between the two
contradictions. . . For the God
wants to know himself in you.
I love that. Note that we don’t disregard, or even worse, denigrate the past. We embrace it because it is part of us. It informs us and shapes us through the relationship. And then it spurs us on to greater things. We take our “practiced powers and stretch them out”!, all the while recognizing Who is brightly and purely doing the granting.
What does that look like really? I don’t know exactly. That’s the beauty and the terror of it. None of us know exactly, there is no formula. If we are out there, creating, things are going to be changing, transforming, being born.
What I do know is that creating is difficult, and make no mistake, it’s risky. I don’t mean risky as in “Gosh, I really don’t know how to draw very well; I’m not sure I want you to look at my picture,” but as in “I am putting the deepest parts of my soul onto this canvas – or this sheet of music, or in this poem, or within the pages of this story, exposing the most vulnerable part of me for another (or a whole audience of others) to accept or reject, or worse – to ignore.” And it’s not relegated only to the realm of Art. Creating new ways to solve a problem, innovating, inventing, bringing something into existence in order to impact the world around us.
What I do know is that the creating process doesn’t always look finished or polished. It’s often messy or noisy. It is replete with all the flaws that come with being human, but it is exhilarating. One grand morning, a group of 8 and 9 year olds and I took great delight in contemplating the Creation story as we never had before. What must it have been like to hear the great and roaring bottomless depths of oceans being pushed within their boundaries for the first time? Or for fully grown trees to instantly, at a Word, break forth from the ground? Or for the earth to be filled suddenly with great herds of ultrasauruses with footsteps like thunder? The glorious noise of it all! These images we imagined of the Creator creating with wild abandon and sheer joy helped free us a bit more to “break forth” ourselves.
What I do know is that through the act of creating something new we become connected in a deeper way to those who have done the same. My middle school students who were studying the life and work of van Gogh began to feel a profound connection and empathy for him especially during the time that they themselves were working on writing and performing a modern day morality play. The students created the ideas on their own. My husband served as a facilitator in terms of writing the music on paper in a form that his choir could understand, but the students created the music and the words. This put them in the terrible and vulnerable position of exposing new ideas to an audience that is not used to new ideas. (Audiences in our day are not used to such things. Audiences come to see the familiar in most arenas, whereas audiences of long ago expected to hear new ideas and to reject or accept them [which Mason states as the ”chief responsibility which rests upon persons” PoE, xxxi]. The common practice of composers such as Mozart and Beethoven was to present new works. The audience expected it, along with improvisations on piano; it just wouldn’t have occurred to the composer or the audience to do anything else.) My students found that often great energy and enthusiasm is met with silence and in some cases derision. They had seen the scenario unfold within the historical context, but to experience it themselves had an impact upon them that nothing else could. It was a challenging, beautiful, painful and extremely satisfying experience.
What I do know is that I had to begin to think even more purposefully about creating a space – a physical, emotional, spiritual space for the children in my care to go beyond learning to creating – and to see the process of creating as importantly valuable in itself. My husband’s piano students have begun composing as a natural, and indeed necessary extension of their work in piano. And it is the playing, the sharing of music that is important. He does not have yearly recitals, where the children work on a piece and then perform it (usually with high anxiety). Rather the community gets together every month to play and listen to music. Sometimes those there will bring poetry (that they have written) and three young students have begun to bring handwork projects to show). Many of these students of his have had their pieces performed by the community chorale. They have had a chance to communicate, to share their creation with others. And it is contagious. Members in the Chorale have begun to write. Younger and older (14 and 73) have been inspired to begin writing with their pieces being sung by the Chorale in the fall season. And their work is not simply a copy of pieces they have already heard. They are writing in a new way, a new style. The ideas are doing their work of begetting. Though Mark is an accomplished pianist, has had pieces published all over the world, and has played at Carnegie Hall, it is his work with his students and choirs, it is his own creative improvisational work in this tiny town that bring him his greatest joys. That’s the work he wants to talk about and that is because it is focused on the important. Not on technique or performance, but on the creative, collaborative work of communicating ideas. His choirs know that the focus and importance of their work each week is singing together that moment. It is not working on Christmas pieces for 12 weeks to prepare for the Christmas concert. The rehearsal is not the thing which gets us to the performance, it is the thing.
What I do know is that I need to gracefully present “enthusiastic minds” which span the ages to my students. Not always an easy task – sometimes we need the distance of time to determine the value of the ideas we are ourselves are steeped in. We can all bring to mind brilliant scientists and artists whose new ideas could not be appreciated in their own time.
I’ll end with these words by the contemporary artist Fujimura: “. . . the creator reaches out in hope to call the world into that creation. And what if the creator reaches out to the Creator, the source and origin of creativity? Would not God be delighted?” (69)
Adler, Mortimer, “The Great Conversation Revisited,” in The Great Conversation:
A Reader’s Guide to Great Books of the Western World, Chicago: Encyclopedia
Britannica, Inc., 1990.
Fujimura, Makoto. Refractions. NavPress, 2009.
Mason, Charlotte. Home Education. 1935. Reprint, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989.
—. A Philosophy of Education. 1925. Reprint, Wheaton: Tyndale House
Publishers, Inc., 1989.
Rilke, Ranier Maria. “As Once the Winged Energy of Delight,” in Ahead of All Parting,
Modern Library, 1995.
© Rebekah Hierholzer 2011