Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Politics of Illiteracy

An educated population can govern itself. I am not sure if this is an exact quote but it is attributed to the American Founder, Thomas Jefferson. This is a sentiment that I agree with completely. I not only believe passionately in education but more importantly I believe in knowledge, wisdom, and creativity. These attributes all seem to be in short supply in today’s world. I look back over the last 4 decades of my life and I see a general decline in education and the ability of people to think critically. I have seen people, in general, shun the responsibility for their own lives and place failure on some mythical other. This both saddens and frightens me. I have to ask, what happened?

Over the years the educational system has been blamed for this problem. I think that this is somewhat true but I put a greater share of the blame on the politicians and on society itself. The USA is a very materialistic culture that is driven by consumerism. It is very good at being goal oriented without really understanding the consequences of its actions. It is an impatient culture that wants results and wants them now.

Education, for me, is learning how to think critically and learning how to ask the right questions not learning how to memorize the correct answers. It seems simple enough; you can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what is the real problem. The danger here is if you or I ask too many (or enough) questions we will find the answer but we may not like it. We just might discover that we are the problem. God forbid that we should live an examined life. We want absolution but we don’t want to have to admit fault or have to change so there is only one real course of action, delusion. In step the politicians, the corporations, the churches, and yes even the schools. They are happy to provide this service because it is profitable and gives them control. Here I think of two things, the book, A Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley and the movie, The Matrix. If you are not familiar with them you should research them. They are both entertaining and educational.

Back when I was in high school (1964-67) not everyone was considered to be college bound. Skills and temperament decided that some would have their education geared to going into the job market after graduation. This could be in business, manufacturing, or the skilled trades. Those of us that had the skills and temperament for college were given a more rigorous and well rounded education. We studied advanced math, laboratory sciences, literature (American, French, English, and Russian). We took foreign languages, music, and studied art. We even had to take the dreaded P.E. (physical education or gym). It was to make us well rounded and expand our worldview. It was to teach us to understand our world. We fear what we do not understand. If we want to remove fear then embrace understanding. To understand we need to embrace learning and thinking.

What does all of this have to do with art, especially abstract art? I comes from my last post where I said, “It was way too easy to think that people didn’t understand (abstract art) because they were illiterate about art.” This is true. What is also true is that I was expressing my own frustration, or guilt, at not having the skills to make others understand what I was doing. I am very good at feeling guilty. As a child my mother controlled me by using guilt. Later the Catholic Church got in on the act. Now that I am grown up I can feel guilty all by myself. There is something else at work here, though. I learned how to think and because of that I feel that I have the responsibility to make others, who have not learned how to think very well, understand what I am doing and saying. Art is a dialogue between the artist and the viewer. I realize that I am personalizing it way too much when I take the blame for someone else not understanding it. Guilt, the gift that keeps on giving. By doing this I may have become part of the problem by trying to dumb down or pander to the viewer’s inability to understand. It may also be a sign of my own insecurities and wanting to do something that was more readily acceptable. Silly me, I’ll never be able to survive in that world.

So yes, Philip, we are both coming at this issue from slightly different directions but our thrust is the same. Education is failing because it has become a bureaucracy just like the government and any large corporation. The primary goal of any bureaucracy is to sustain and protect itself. They are not there to serve but to be served. These worlds are exclusive, they are there to support the elite. This is not the world that I want to live in. I want to live in a more inclusive world. As a culture we say we value thinking outside the box to solve problems. The reality, I believe, is that we fear it because it upsets the order and rule of the elite. This is a culture that claims it embraces the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition says that we are all created in the image of God. Well, God is creative so we are all created in the image of creativity, to be creative. So I have to ask the question, why do we, as a culture, try to beat the life out of creativity in our children, our schools, and jobs?

The above images are my trying to combine abstract and representational methods. The first is soft pastel, measuring about 16" square. It is titled, "4 Yew" and is about 10 years old. The other image is oil pastel. I don't remember the size. It is titled, "Red Field, Green Road and was done about 4 years ago.


Blogger Philip said...

This is a fascinating article Ed and I agree with what you say. You are a gifted writer as you are painter and you have dealt with a quite complex subject very succinctly. I am sure you are not surprised to learn that I have pretty much come to the same conclusions although there are some differences in our experiences.
I think your recent articles give a fascinating insight into how you have arrived at where you are as an artist and as a person.

For my part, I have not really felt guilt in the way you describe. I am equally a harsh critic of the way religion is practiced, the way politicians operate, the lack of personal responsibility in society as I am of the education system. All these things are inextricably linked of course.

Taking the education system though (as this is the place where things begin go wrong for individuals) I would like to offer some thoughts on how things could be different.

First and foremost I believe that everyone is talented at something. I believe the education system should be about finding out what every child is good at and wants to learn about. I don’t believe that we should all be made to jump through the same set of hoops as we all learn in different ways and at different speeds and have different interests and skills. I believe that we all learn things best when we have a specific need or interest.

It is interesting to observe how children very quickly master a PC and can do all sorts of things. The speed at which they learn (usually of their own accord) becomes the envy of their parents. They do this, I contend, because they are interested and want to learn about computers. The same applies to mobile phones and all forms of technology. They seem able to learn these things in flash. Put the same set of children in a Latin class and their eyes will glaze over and many will fail their exams and feel that sense of failure. The same applies to many subjects of course. I should point out that if any child wants to devote themselves to learning Latin then they should of course be free to do so – I am just using this as an example. I am not in any way devaluing any one subject over another.

If also believe that if children were encouraged to be good at the things they are interested in, society and industry would benefit. The fundamental mistake is the belief that education is there to feed industry whereas I contend that industry flows (or rather should) from education.

I intend to write more articles on my own blog which deal with related issues. I am encouraged to do so by the fact that in reading what you say, I don’t feel quite so alone.

6:23 AM  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

Wow -- another great thoughtful post -- must dive in later, after...


7:28 AM  
Blogger The Epiphany Artist said...

I believe that there are greater reasons as to why society and education and all is going down, down... You cant blame religion or you are doing the blame game as well. There are small cores of people left with true values and beliefs and operate on what they belive... and live it. The point is you have to walk the talk or the talk is a waste of time.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

the epiphany artist - if there are greater reasons in your opinion perhaps you can enlighten us by sharing these. I would love to see politicians and so-called religious leaders walk the talk. I could have a long wait!

Also, I wasn't just blaming but making a constructive suggestion for making the education system work for everyone.

10:05 AM  
Blogger leslyf said...

Wonderful post, Ed, and very a interesting discussion too. As usual you and Philip show excellence in expressing your thoughts and opinions.

One thought I have is that there has been an emphasis in recent years on 'the rights of the individual' rather than the needs of the larger social group. And it seems to me that many people never get to realise that as well as 'rights' there has to be 'responsibilities'. The result is growing lack of respect for others, intolerance and self-gratification.

The reasons why this has happened are, as Ed and Philip say, multi-factored ... and include consumerism, waning religious belief, powerful mass media, advertising, economic factors. Education most certainly has had a role to play, especially in secondary and tertiary education.

Primary education, for the most part, is all about 'learning is fun', and children are also taught how to function as part of a group, their class, their school, their community. But there are many factors that result in this 'social awareness' getting lost as they move on through secondary school and beyond.

Changing values have resulted in schools having little or no redress when it comes to dealing with bullying or other anti-social behaviours. The only sanctions left are 'exclusion' or expulsion, ... hardly constructive acts.

And where there is no parental guidance and help at home what hope can there be for those children who do not easily conform, or do not otherwise 'fit', to the prescribed syllabus?

Sociological theories and social history are endlessly fascinating subjects ... but do governments read them or, more importantly, take note?

8:25 PM  
Blogger leslyf said...

Oh yes Ed .... re your paintings here in these last two posts - they are really interesting. I especially like the two you have posted with this.

I do hope that you are working on some more currently?????

8:28 PM  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

Another aspect? The very medium (and explosion of media) that brings us together here have produced what I've heard called "The Death of the Commons."

Without a canon (the "Commons" of a culture) and a shared sense of its validity and importance -- and given our ever-increasing focus on microprogramming and "What's In It For Me" views of culture and media -- will our culture revert to a medieval-esque caste structure? A very few with both the means and education to patronize and respond, the many ignoring all but the coarsest entertainments?

3:21 PM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Hi Philip,

No, I am not surprised that we share the same conclusions. I agree that the education system is where things begin to go wrong for individuals but I see it as politicians putting pressure on the school systems. I read an article over 20 years ago on how the current educational model in the USA only effectively reaches 16% of the student population. That leaves 84% who would learn better with other methods. I was one of those students. In high school I was barely an average student whereas in college I was an honors student. The difference was how I was allowed to learn. The educational model in the USA really hasn’t changed since the beginning of the Industrial Age. Additionally, politicians want to standardize and quantify education and I don’t believe it really can be done. Also, in the USA there is the hang up that we are all equal and the reality is that we are not. We all have, like you said, different gifts and talents and these should be encouraged. The problem with this, though, is that it is not efficient. So, for the sake of efficiency, those who do not fit the mold are sacrificed or hammered down until they fit.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Hi Terri,

It’s good to hear from you. You are so right when you say that there are greater reasons why society and education are going down. I don’t blame religion, but I do think that they contribute just like everyone and everything else and have succumbed to the same evil. The reasons are far more global. It is not finger pointing. I am just as much a part of the problem as anyone. The difference is in accepting responsibility for my own actions. When John the Baptist called people out into the desert and told them to repent it was a powerful call to self-examination. Repent, in this instance, means to stand naked and defenseless before God and to say, “I was wrong.” The repentant offers no reasons or excuses. I only have to look at government, corporations, the churches, and culture at large that all whine that what happened was not their fault. My premise is that I can’t change the world if I don’t change my own life. I have to start with myself and work outward from there. I work everyday at walking my talk and admitting to my mistakes. Example is the best teacher.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Hi Lesly,

These are wonderful comments. How right you are about the individual versus society. It seems that there is a constant mantra of, “what’s in this for me?’ I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that it is only a life lived for others that is a life truly lived. I find that so many of the problems of the day have to do with people not taking responsibility for their own actions. If I do something wrong I will take my licks. Conversely, if I do well I should get the accolades and don’t blame me for someone else’s misdeeds. In this country, the farce that we call our government is filled with the attitude of, “it wasn’t my fault.” Regretfully corporations, schools, churches, and individuals all pick up on this attitude and adopt it as there own. For me, it is very simply the Golden Rule of do unto others.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Hi Lori,

You said will our culture revert to a medieval-esque caste structure? I think that it already has. It seems to me that most everything is being reduced to the lowest common denomenator. Instead of working to pull others up we seem to want to dumb things down. Over the years I always tried to have friends that were smarter than me. It forced me to work to keep up to their standards. as for the caste system, I lament that we are already there. When I worked for a community college I was part of a group that met 4 times yearly to give input on what the course of the school should be. At one such meeting I told them that California was a paradigm for what was going to happen to the heartland within a decade. that there would be a greater disparity between the haves and have-nots. I received incredulous looks with the unspoken attitude of who is this idiot spouting negatavisms. Entertainment trumps knowledge and education. Sigh!

3:39 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

Ed - picking up on your point about efficiency - I think my approach would perhaps produce much better results for the 84%. What is efficient about such a waste?

I read about an interesting experiment in schools in Switzerland. The issue of the country staying neutral in WWII is still a big issue there. In schools they have been teaching all the angles on this but leaving students to decide whether the decision was was right or wrong. That is the kind of thing that I am advocating. I see nothing dangerous or subversive in this and it makes history far more real and interesting.

My learning of history was based on the 'winners' version of historical events and concentrated on facts and dates. Our opinions were not required.

Art was treated as a dunce subject and concentrated on drawing to the exclusion of all else. Pathetic when you think about it.

4:07 AM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...

Philip, I agree with you on the efficiency thing. I was making an attempt at being glib and sarcastic. My intention was that the system finds it more cost effective to just do nothing than to try to solve the problem not realizing that the problem will continue into the students adult years.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

I wondered if you have drawn any further conclusions from all of this. The more I think about it - politics, religion, etc. - all roads lead back to education either formal or part of life's learning. Unless people start thinking more for themsleves and challenge the existing order I doubt much will ever change.

Certainly, nothing much is likely to change in our lifetime and as an individual any influence I have amounts to (near) zero. Going back to art, I don't therefore feel any strong need to explain myslef or feel that I have anything to prove. For one thing my audience, in the general scheme of things, is way too small for anything I say to matter. I think that the Internet may help if it isn't eventually brought under control but I think it's too early to tell about that yet.

It's just the times we were born into and I think it will take hundreds of years for there to be much in the way of cultural change of the kind I would like to see. I am more than happy to be proved wrong though!

10:43 AM  
Blogger Juan Bielsa said...

A wonderful and thoughtful article, Ed.

Well, Ed, you have centered your article basically on education. But I think that we are living dangerous times, in politics as well, and in many other areas. All is related.

Time passes, but culture or education of people are not much better than in the past. Certainly, we have more advanced technology, but the really important thing is not technology (even TV is junk, in many cases),
as you point out is the ability of people to THINK critically and to act with responsability, without that, our democracy is meaningless.
And it is precisely that DEMOCRACY the most precious asset of our societies. In many countries freedom of any kind is restricted, people cannot express their opinions and information is controlled, so it is difficult to think and to live with dignity.

If there would be more freedom of expression, if THINKING, education, culture, arts were encouraged we would have more democracy, we'll live in a society that could face the future with more optimism. There are a lot of countries where the authorities, the élites, don't really like an authentic democracy (where people can really CHOOSE). Even in our democratic societies, the behaviour of some authorities show that they also fear a real expression of freedom, the promotion of more advanced forms of culture.

Our democracies are always in danger, and this danger comes many times from the inside. If culture, arts, free THINKING, recede, all will be in danger. Our cherised democracy is not really a thing established forever, it must be
conquered every single day.

Regards, Ed,

Juan Bielsa

9:42 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

Yet another thought triggered by reading what Juan said: it's interesting to observe that the arts in general are not valued in the education system yet there are times when certain art has been banned by extreme political or religious groups. If art has little value,why ban it?

8:14 AM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...


Thank you for your comments. I have enjoyed and appreciate them. More than that, I completely agree with them. Here are links to 2 articles that I think you may find of interest. They express my political beliefs.

The Future Has Caught Up With Us

Killing the Constitution

and a link for artwork that addresses this issue

Spanish, 1746 - 1828
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,

3:17 PM  
Blogger Ed Maskevich said...


Ahhh, your question is also the answer. You are so right, why ban something that has no value? The problem is that it does have value. It has value and true merit so lies must be spoken in order to disprove it. If my belief is true and just then it will be able to stand on its own. If my beliefs are weak then I have to argue against my opponent to the point of demonizing them.

3:24 PM  
Blogger jafabrit said...

I really can't add much more to this conversation as you all said it so well. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed the post and the various comments.

1:16 PM  
Blogger amber said...

Wow awesome those trees are magnificent when i first saw them i saw abstaction then the image filled in Really great!

1:26 PM  

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