The Art Within Problematic American Democracy

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NextGen Climate

One day when I was taking time, as I do daily, to check in with Professor Long’s blog, I unexpectedly fell upon the exact video that I watched on November 7th, 2017. Flashback to that night, with a tight grip on my partners hand, I rest my head on his shoulder, slowly and in sync we inhaled and exhaled; it was election day. At this point I had experienced several months where, to my disappointment, not even music had been able to ease my worried mind. But in that moment, in a cramped college apartment, staring at the stickers on the coffee table displaying tag lines like “Friends don’t let friends vote Trump,” “Stand. Defend. Protect. Land, Water, Home” and “I love beer and I love clean water”  we were watching the numbers roll in, and the reality with it, so we turned away from the news and drowned out the noise with this Simon & Garfunkel song. From that moment and beyond the song has reminded me of the beauty of American democracy and the art that is comes as a product of it. It would take a few months of passionate contemplation, assessing and averting fear, to become the cock-eyed optimist that I had always known myself to be, but as I look back now on what pushed me through this perplexing period I know others shared with me, I can relate them all back to American democracy. It was music, Nahko’s Love Letters To God, Trevor Hall’s Standing Rock, and the song below from Simon & Garfunkel. It was the literature of Walt Whitman and De Toqueville. It was speeches by Emerson and Williams, and the poetry of Adrienne Rich in her book An Atlas of a Difficult World. It was film, documentaries like Waiting For Superman (2010) or Inequality for All (2013). It was research papers of James Lull and the deep, complex, and important conversations surrounding these types of works. It was art, the freedom that we are allowed, the freedom to share political messages and emotional experiences in this Open Space of Democracy that push individuals like myself to persevere, questioning and challenging this society. Our society is capitalistic and democratic; it is not ideal, not even close. The most pressing issue for us today is that those in power invest in profit. Instead, we must capitalize on our right to free speech and invest in education and in art, the entities that allow diverse individuals to grow, feel, and think. These are the key components that motivate individuals to continuously create new and better life for all to experience.

“(And) you are taking a moment to consider another interesting moment of creative democratic practice in your satchel of cultural history: the performance of the song “America” in September 1981 by Simon and Garfunkel, performed as part of the free benefit concert on the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park that brought out 500,00 people to listen to music in the rain” – Mark Long (Professor)

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Activating Democratic Practice:

My Reaction to Archival Work at Keene State College and Working with Aspect Magazine

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How fitting and ironic it was to work in the Keene State College Archives. Fitting because an archive itself is an object of democracy. An archive is a collection of historical documents and records, many of those primary sources, that provide differing accounts of the world. Archives are democratic because they are available to the public. Due to the sacristy of the materials in these archives they may be carefully protected, but rather than being thrown away or kept hidden, the materials in archives are open for individuals to explore, dissect, and interpret. What archives hold are proof of various cultural aspects of society throughout time. The work of Dewey, Rich, Whitman, De Toqueville, and the speeches of Williams and Emerson all express that the reading and re-reading of literature, art, and academic works, is imperative to democracy, and the archives provide us with a direct channel to practice it. Ironically, as a third year dweller of this campus and someone who believes wholly in the idea that in order for democracy to function positively we must all be active participants, I was ashamed to find myself in the KSC archives for the first very time.

That leading step into the room excited my senses. I was reminded of my own experiences as a child exploring libraries and office buildings as the scent of ancient dusty paper filled my nose. In the room I could feel my own history and all the history beyond. Immediately I found myself intrigued, wanting to awash myself with every one of the thousands of first-hand accounts from individuals throughout history, those who had maybe stepped foot on the same fields I walk today, or those who caused larger ripples in society in their time. I knew that it was in this room where I could practice democracy with passion, as Terry Tempest Williams asks all scholars to do in her commencement speech “The Open Space of Democracy”  Hearing from the archivists Rodney and Zach about what our archives at KSC held within its walls I could feel an elephant taking up the small space. I wonder if my fellow students felt this. Were others also ashamed that they had not visited the archives, knowing with almost certainty that our peers also had not done so? Were we all reminded of past projects and papers where, if we had taken advantage of this incredibly valuable tool that is right at our fingertips, we could have created much more productive work? Might we have been able to practice democracy more responsibly? I was flooded with the knowledge that I should occupy this space more often in a show of gratitude for my college, for the increasingly available tools like these that can be found all around us in this technological era, that encourage the citizens of America to be more active participants in democracy. Archives give us a straight route to countless sources such as Aspect Magazine, but yet so many of us choose not to participate in the exploration of these sources. Can we truly call ourselves players in creative democracy?

Rather than dwelling, I thought it more useful start making up for these missed opportunities, to thank Rodney and Zach and Professor Long by diving into this archival work, democratic work, and commentating on Aspect Magazine. I wanted now to exercise my right to democracy by developing descriptions of specific issues of the insightful work of Aspect Magazine to be published for others to access for years to come.

Ed Hogan, in creating Aspect, this “little magazine” (magazines usually noncommercial in nature and often committed to certain literary ideals) truly performed an act of creative democracy. The poems, essays, political commentary, and artwork from various unique authors and artists during a specific time period truly brings you into their world. The work of so many who wanted to share art and education is an example of free speech, of the collaborative practice of progressive democracy. What better way is there to investigate American culture, to be able to feel the experiences of others who participated in our democratic society? Reading the poetry felt like reading Adrienne Rich. The experience of reading the experiences of others felt like that ongoing connection that Dewey wants us to recognize. It is connecting experience to social activism. Aspect Magazine is such a hidden gem in the world of art, of democracy, of literature, that if recognized today, can deepen cultural understanding and incentivize others to create anything with similar positive impact.

The issue of Aspect magazine I worked with, and the legacy of it’s creator, Ed Hogan, as an individual as described by so many of those whom he has touched in “Remembering Ed Hogan” (1998), provides me with an archetype of what it looks like to be an individual who makes good use of democracy. Aspect beautifully combines artwork and scholarly work. Not only does this attract a wider array of viewers, assessing the world through academia and art allows for two versions of “truth” to be shared, both holding incredible weight in our understanding of culture, society, history. As Emerson expresses in American Scholar, and similarly to how a fellow classmate of mine, Nick Sharek evaluated Emerson’s piece in his response to it “Creative Scholars” (2017), scholarly work produces factual, historical truth that is researched and defended and art produces an emotional truth, just as important, that may be described as “the truth of the day” (1837). I think too often we separate these two truths, but truly practicing democracy requires, as Dewey would describe in chapter 3 of Art and Experience, “Having an Experience” an esthetic experience, one that involves both personal emotion but is also connected to past and future experiences of yourself and others, to make the experience practical in the progression of the rest of the world. The ability of Aspect to bring readers to experience artwork and scholarly work simultaneously allows the reader to have an esthetic experience.* This, for me, is what makes Aspect so impressive. Although I attempt in the writing of my blog and in my philosophy of teaching to provide for this type of experience, I have hopes of one day cultivating such a project as Hogan; something that is public and accessible to so many, something that allows one to experience art and academia together. Providing more individuals with this opportunity, to my thinking, will cause more people to practice democracy in an effective way.

*For more information and thoughts on esthetic experiences, look to my previous post “Experience and Constructivism in Education” that discusses some of Dewey’s work.

Sources

Hogan, Edward J. ;Link, Ellen; Kistner, M.K.; Black, Lawrence; Anderson, Sally S.; Dominguez, Paul; Schalit, Robert; Porter, Ed; Hahn, John; Hamilton, Fritz; Sanford, Geraldine; Latta, Richard; Combellick, Henry; Zar, Rubin; Nasta, Anthony P.; Ward, Lynd; and McTernan (Student Commentator), Kerrin, “Aspect Magazine vol. 8, issue 46-7, December-January, 1972-3” (1972-3). Aspect Magazine. 

https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0BzA66xFH3zcCQzJtdFZnbjdjc3M

Experience and Constructivism in Education:

How John Dewey’s Experience and Education and “Having and Experience” from Art and Experience can enhance education and life.

The first of several prominent theorists and theories I have investigated in the 2016-2017 academic year was John Dewey. Just dipping my toes into his work, I read his book Experience and Education (Kappa Delta Pi Lecture). Dewey’s philosophy of the importance of experience and constructivism in the realm of education peaked my interest and I found that the topics, first introduced to me by Dewey, were also prominent themes of the readings of James A. Banks and Albert Bandura and my class discussions around the theory of constructivism. Dewey’s work itself is an example of the connection between experience and constructivism in education, as he develops a deeper understanding by posing questions incessantly about what has worked in the past based on the experiences of him and others. Albert Bandura was also a great example of the efficacy of approaching learning with a constructivist attitude. After these readings I have begun to focus on how I may be able to teach students to see everything as an experience and then teach them how to make every experience, good and bad, outside and inside the classroom, meaningful to their education. I want to allow students to approach their experiences and the learning of the experiences of others throughout history with a constructivist mindset. If students understand that all of their experiences, including the experience of learning subject-matter in school, are connected to one another, and if they evaluate their experiences to find what works and what does not, they can consistently improve their knowledge and increase their learning skills. I realized that in order to find operative ways to use experience and constructivism in the classroom it was imperative to ask important questions that evaluate the standard ideologies that have surrounded these concepts in the past. Some of those questions for me are, what is a real, true, productive experience? What does it mean to have an experience in our society? To look further into these questions I turned to chapter three, “Having an Experience” of Dewey’s book Art and Experience.

Much of John Dewey’s work centers around experience and the idea of constructivism and how these ideas intertwine. Dewey discusses his idea of what it means to have an experience in his book Art and Experience, where he essentially explains how an esthetic experience, which refers to experience as appreciative, perceiving, and enjoying from the producers viewpoint, involves constructivism (1934):

Experiencing like breathing is a rhythm of intakings and outgivings. Their succession is punctuated and made a rhythm by the existence of intervals, periods in which one phase is ceasing and the other is inchoate and preparing. William James aptly compared the course of a conscious experience to the alternate Rights and perchings of a bird…. Each resting place in experience is an undergoing in which is absorbed and taken home the consequences of prior doing, and, unless the doing is that of utter caprice or sheer routine, each doing in itself carries in itself meaning that has been extracted and conserved. As with the advance of an army, all gains from what has been already effected are periodically consolidated, and always with a view to what is to be done next. (1959)

Earlier in this chapter, Dewey would explain the importance of creating an experience for yourself rather than for the consumer of what you make from your experience. However, Dewey also points out if the producer goes through experiences with blind passion it will subsequently takes away from education because it disconnects experience from reality. (1959) I now grapple with how I can bring students to feel passion in their experience, to avoid participating in experiences solely to produce outcomes for the consumer, while also connecting their experiences to the realities of the society that surrounds them.

In his book Experience and Education Dewey ties these ideas of experience and constructivism back to education. Although Experience and Education is a dense piece with complicated language, Dewey provides numerous diverse analyses of constructivism in education, many that include metaphors like those he uses in other works such as the metaphors seen in the example above. This variety of explanation allows the reader several chances to generate an understanding of his theories. In this next quote I found clarity on Dewey’s theory of experience, education, and constructivism:

Admit that traditional education employed as the subject-matter for study facts and ideas so bound up with the past as to give little help in dealing with the issues of the present and future…Now we have the problem of discovering the connection which actually exists within experience between the achievements of the past and the issues of the present… We may reject knowledge of the past as the end of education and thereby only emphasize its importance as a means. When we do that we have a problem that is new in the story of education: How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present? (1938)

As we see here, in this book Dewey does not explicitly outline solutions for the problems that he identifies within education, or within experience, but he does ask the important questions that might allow us to create new and better understandings of these problems, and hopefully to construct more effectual solutions.

Constructivism and Dewey’s philosophy of education rely substantially on the framework that experience is a continuous flow of beginnings and endings. To allow for experience to be more than “monotony and useless repetitions” as often seen in schools, Dewey would find that we must do two things, participate in experiences passionately for yourself, avoiding the expectation that each experience must produce the expected outcome (outcomes that are often to the benefit of others rather than the person having the experience) and approach each new beginning only after relating the experience to reality, through asking questions about them over and over to reach fulfillment, until “what is conceived is brought forth and is rendered perceptible as part of the common world” (1959). Through this study of theories and theorists not only I have identified a potential approach to teaching that I believe fits with my philosophy of life and learning, I have also begun adopt aspects of these theories of constructivism and experience. I continue to ask deeper questions that get to the root of experience and learning, like, “does the “experience” of education in America imply the students, or does it imply those who at the time can perceive and enjoy the product that comes out of our education systems?

Sources

Banks, J. A. (2001). An introduction to multicultural education (3rd ed.).             extension://bjfhmglciegochdpefhhlphglcehbmek/content/web/viewer.html ?file=file%3A%2F%2F%2FUsers%2FKerrinMcTernan%2FDownloads%2FB  ANKS.pdf

Dewey, John. (1959). Art as experience. New York: Capricorn Books.

Dewey, John. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

In Consequence of Literature:

I Become The American Scholar, The Poet.

The american scholar inherently understands there is no end. May this knowledge be both the devil and the angel on their shoulder.

For the instinct of the american scholar is to experience all, evaluate old, and create new. Emerson himself said, “The American scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power.”

The visceral american scholar will find themselves with an intimate knowledge of society that compounded can incite such a distaste they may be derailed from their pursuance of purpose.

The Poetry

So interrogative of society, it is overwhelming.

I am hamstrung.

Struggling as I read through the commencement speeches of Emerson and Terry Tempest Williams.

Several samples committed to me immense stimulation.

Awash in the questions that do, indeed, Williams, keep me awake at night.

In reading these I am thrown into my life’s work.

But for homework, I must write.

So, yes, Emerson, here I am reading with the intention to write.

And yes, Emerson, as I am “braced by labor and invention” the words I read carry much more weight.

I read here of american scholars.

And here, I identify.

The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy… In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, — happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns, that in going down into the secrets of his own mind, he has descended into the secrets of all minds.  (American Scholar 1837)

You were not interested in ideas or language that polarized people: Christianity vs. Islam; Republicans vs. Democrats; wilderness vs. development. You wanted to talk about alternatives, solutions, how to speak a language that opens hearts rather than closes them. You were acutely aware of the complexities and hesitant to take sides before considering all the evidence before you… an educated mind is an empathetic mind. (University of Utah 2003 Commencement Address by Terry Tempest Williams)

In these speeches I come upon solace.

Meanwhile the embers of my being stirred.

I am the American Scholar.

The scholar of Emerson.

Of Williams.

And I am white middle class woman.

In 2017,

Not 1837,

Not 2003.

But still, these words inspire.

In darkness, an epiphany.

And when things don’t go as planned, patience and perseverance are required. Trust. Stay open. Suddenly, a surprise appears. Something you never could have imagined. (University of Utah 2003 Commencement Address by Terry Tempest Williams)

These convocation speeches, a remedy.

So much of the literature I read, remedies.

Because these words are emblematic of who I am.

I am american scholar.

I am philosopher.

And educator.

And historian.

And activist.

And empath.

I am responsive citizen, Williams.

I am Man Thinking, Emerson.

Emerson,

Is it true?

Shall it be upon us intellectuals to continue to read; to be inspired?

To write; create?

And will I contribute to the next chapter of the American Scholar’s biography?

Or to the next celebration for the survival of literature?

Yes, Williams, something in me has been set in motion.

No, there is no end for the american academic, what an encumbrance!

But there are infinite new beginnings.

And yes, Williams, this is the gift of education.

Sources

“The American scholar – The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Complete Works of RWE. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson – RWE.org, 19 Dec. 2004. Web. Feb. 2017. http://www.rwe.org/the-american-scholar/

“University of Utah 2003 commencement address by Terry Tempest Williams.” archive.unews.utah.edu. 2003. Web. Feb. 2017. http://archive.unews.utah.edu/news_releases/university-of-utah-2003-commencement-address-by-terry-tempest-williams/


Alexis de Tocqueville’s Work is Relevant:

A Response to Democracy in America, Volume 2, Chapter XI, “In What Spirits Americans Cultivate the Arts.

Historian Alexis de Tocqueville set off from France to study American society and in 1840 published this volume of Democracy in America. You might be inclined to deem his work invalid today because you believe his visitor status made him unfit to study the complex system that is American democracy or because, at 177 years old, his work is outdated. But can it not be said that American democracy has an impact on every individual who lives under it for any period of time, contributing to how they think and react to most experiences? And is it not true that through the study of historical literature we can identify patterns that help us to better understand the present?

It comes to me that Tocqueville had an advantage in his studies because he was not under the direct influence of American democracy. Although his familiarity with French nobility may have left him with biases of his own, there is merit to be found in his detachment from the system that so many Americans vehemently defend because its principles are the foundation of their country. These principals are therefore an integral aspect of American identity, and so I am appreciative of Tocqueville’s work for bringing to light and then emphasizing those effects of democracy that we are blind to. I even find it unfortunate that, 177 years after this publication, there is not more conversation surrounding Tocqueville’s claims as cogent as they are.

As a minimalist, I venture to only bring into my life that which adds value. Tocqueville’s work has value. Here, he illustrates a truth of American democracy:

 Among a democratic people a number of citizens always exists whose patrimony is divided and decreasing. They have contracted, under more prosperous circumstances, certain wants, which remain after the means of satisfying such wants are gone; and they are anxiously looking out for some surreptitious method of providing for them. On the other hand, there is always in democracies a large number of men whose fortune is on the increase, but whose desires grow much faster than their fortunes, and who gloat upon the gifts of wealth in anticipation, long before they have means to obtain them. Such men are eager to find some short cut to these gratifications, already almost within their reach. From the combination of these two causes the result is that in democracies there is always a multitude of persons whose wants are above their means and who are very willing to take up with imperfect satisfaction rather than abandon the object of their desires altogether.

Since Tocqueville’s time I have no doubt that Americans are all the more exposed to those “more prosperous” circumstances which bring them to desire more material objects and unrealistic goals. We have consumerism to thank for that, flooding us with advertisements that in this age of technology can seep into everything we do. Americans have been conditioned since birth to tie their identity to material success. Other definitions of success that have developed in American society are financial success, success in ones career, success which is determined by beauty and business. It is expected of Americans to accumulate the most money while at the same time being tempted to spend their money on the most expensive items as a way of revealing their wealth. An American is applauded when in the course of one day they complete a multitude of tasks, engage with their hobbies, go to work, and stay healthy in mind and body. Any average individual cannot possibly live up to these expectations, for they are either unobtainable or irrational. At the very least, someone may be outwardly successful by this definition, but still, the result is a life with less meaning because with these ideals one cannot be fully immersed in all they do. This is all rooted in democratic values established in early colonial America. Even when an individual encapsulates all of these things- beautiful, wealthy, active, hardworking, caring, etc. there is always the allure for more. In our democratic system, more is always better, and one is not motivated from within. Living in a democracy should mean that everyone feels free to do what satisfies their soul, though. Tocqueville observed this American mentality to be vastly different than that of an aristocrat. In the age of aristocracy, quality of work was preferable to quantity of work. Quality of life as well. While I am not out to denounce the benefits of a democracy and do not seek to debate that an aristocratic system is preferable, if Tocqueville and I can observe the same detrimental trends influenced by American democracy 177 years apart, why have we not considered a more drastic constructivist outlook? Why have we not become acquainted with the past, our democratic past as well as the past of other cultures, in such a way that we could bring more value and more meaning to our lives?

It is my intention to use my philosophies of minimalism and understanding of the impacts of American democracy on the psyche to bring my future students to question what it is their motivations and desires are rooted in. Will they create a life that is successful and valuable in their own terms, or the terms of their society? What will you do? To what extent will we allow ourselves to be manipulated by customs, simply because we are accustomed to them?

Americans on the whole must shore up their critical thinking skills. We must question the implications of the system that runs our society and gain an awareness of self so that we can improve our ability to decide what is valuable to our lives. Because even if society is manipulating us into positive habits, if we are not finding meaning in them ourselves, how much good can they really do for the growth and development of the individual? Humans are inviolable, thus there is no one system of rule that will work for all of us for all of time. We must take up a constructivist philosophy, that is, to recognize the strengths of an American democratic system but also realize its taxing downfalls. Again, I make no pretenses that we should do the insuperable, to rid our country of capitalism, consumerism, or democracy, but hope to recognize the problems that largely exist in American society and to survive and combat them by becoming more aware and conversational as a people and taking the initiative to redefine success and value amongst the majority. That is precisely the constructivist theory, that rather than completely throwing away an old construct that seems to no longer work, it is more progressive to study it in such depth where, in developing a new idea or construct, the old becomes a tool. This allows a new idea to be built upon the old, and yes, maybe doing without the aspects of it that were negative, but often retaining what did work and simply trying to improve or capitalize on those positive factors. I firmly believe, as you will see in much of this blog, that looking at things with a constructivist view is beneficial to progress of any kind be it political or personal progress.