I recently had the opportunity to attend the Beyond Van Gogh exhibit with my wife and our two youngest grand daughters, ages 10 and 11. I was fully prepared to be impressed, moved even. The experience didn’t fail on either front.
As I reflected on the experience, some of Van Gogh’s writing caused me to think about marginalized people in our society. People that are misunderstood, underappreciated, and in desperate need to be recognized and valued. And those thoughts led me to think about kids (as I am prone to do). Beyond the undeniable beauty of the experience, was a profound concern for children, the very kids sitting in our classrooms. Juxtaposed to those concerns was an equally profound appreciation for the creativity that lurks within each of us.
Below are three quotes of Vincent Van Gogh in letters to his brother, Theo; his confidant, supporter and best friend.
‘What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity or a disagreeable person – someone who has and will have no position in society, in short, a little lower than the lowest. Very well – assuming that everything is indeed like that, then through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody.” The Hague, July 21, 1882.
“In life and in painting too I can easily do without . . .but I can’t, suffering as I do, do without something greater than myself, which is my life, the power to create.” Arles, September 3, 1888.
“I always think that what we need is sunshine and fine weather and blue air as the most dependable remedy.” Arles, September. 29, 1888.
Do yourself a favor and take a moment to wallow in Van Gogh’s thoughts. What is he expressing, and what are the contemporary implications of his experiences? Take a minute. Breath. Meditate even. But, ground yourself in the wisdom of this deeply pained, and brilliant and illuminative, artist.
This will be a short post. The reason is simple. I want Vincent Van Gogh’s sentiments to translate into the fabric of 21st century education. To accomplish this, I focus on a few of his profound expressions and play them forward into a contemporary context.
“What am I in the eyes of most people? A nonentity or an oddity . . . someone who has and will have no position in society.” How many kids sitting in classrooms, enduring something called public education, see themselves this way? How many of them suffer from low self-esteem and struggle to see themselves as worthy? Worthy of anything. Acceptance, trust, respect, acknowledgement, affection. If I’m a square peg, expected to slip into a round hole, who am I? Really? How can I possibly make sense of this thing called “education” and find myself whole in the other end of the experience? If I’m that kid, the “quirky one,” how and where do I stake my land claim as a legitimate contributor to this society?
The opportunity to experience personal relevance in this experience called “schooling,” is an essential approach to education: one that offers the only opportunity to truly make sense of these questions. We must see, and understand, each child for the unique individual they are if we aspire to afford a personalized, versus standardized, educational experience for each and every kid in our care. Above all, it’s about hope: the expectation and the realization that every child has enormous potential: the potential to realize the milestones of their dreams.
“Through my work I’d like to show what there is in the heart of such an oddity, such a nobody. I can’t, suffering as I do, do without something than myself, which is my life, the power to create.” “The power to create.” It resides in each of us. We are, fundamentally, creative beings. Why is this instinct eroded over time during a student’s K-12 experience? Some suggest that student creativity is down-played due to instructor insecurity. A creative classroom can be noisy. How will a teacher be evaluated within the realm of classroom management if the learning environment is noisy and appears chaotic? Where’s the control? Others suggest that allowing a bent toward creativity will serve as a distraction from the tenets of the course content standards.
Both rationales, and there are certainly many more excuses for diminishing student creativity, are preposterous. A dimension of learning that should never be controlled is the “power to create.” It must be promoted. It must be nurtured and advanced. Kids are creative, and they learn best when their creativity is embraced.
For many of us, realizing the “power” of our effort is transformational. Van Gogh’s recognition that his power resided in his artistic representations inspired and humbled me. We are what we present. Our affect. Our sincerity. Our vulnerability. Our wisdom. Our truth.
Chances are that there is a Vincent Van Gogh sitting in every classroom across the country. An awkward, insecure, maybe even depressed, young person with incredible potential. We must operate within a system that sees beyond the clutter of standardization; one that notices and recognizes the heart of each child, deliberately supporting them in the discovery and the unlocking of their gifts.
“What we need is sunshine and fine weather and blue air.” Who wouldn’t benefit from a bit of “blue air?”