How to teach the Arts: The Discipline of a Free Mind

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In the first part of this series we challenged the popular image of the tormented artist and offered an alternative perspective—that of the disciplined artist. In this post we look at how to acquire this discipline.

Practicing the Difficult Stuff

So far, we have been talking primarily about the fine, literary and performing arts. But if you look closely, the title speaks of “Arts” with a capital ‘a’. This means there are other kinds of arts that we should consider and that are relevant to our discussion. When examining the liberal arts, consider the illuminating words of Mortimer Alder:

The arts of reading and writing, listening and speaking are the arts which make it possible for us to think freely, because they discipline the mind. They are the liberating arts. The discipline they accomplish frees us from the vagaries of unfounded opinion and the strictures of local prejudice. They free our minds from every domination except the authority of reason itself. A free man recognizes no other authority. Those who ask to be free from all authority—from reason itself—are false liberals.

This is thought-provoking; notice how ‘discipline’ seems to be a defining characteristic in the liberal arts as well as in the fine, literary and performing arts—even though it applies differently in each case.

It is important to mention that the ‘reading’ Adler speaks of is not the same as the reading we do when reading a newspaper or even an article like this one. By ‘reading’ Adler means “the process whereby a mind… elevates itself by the power of its own operations. The mind passes from understanding less to understanding more.” For such elevation to be accomplished by the mind, he says, we must read books that challenge our understanding and require more effort than what we usually exert when simply reading for information.

A study shows that what distinguishes elite violin players from average players is not the number of hours that each group dedicates to practice. Both groups spend the same amount of time on music. The difference is that elite players allocate considerably more time doing deliberate practice—“the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.”

The maxim is clear: it is only through continual, methodical struggle that we discipline our minds and refine our craft, and we only truly struggle when we use every turn of skill available to us to master challenging material.

For the second principle, let's look at another category of arts.

The Standard of Indirectness

Blockbuster, Hollywood-type movies are not the best way to teach the arts. But some films can be truly edifying (they say ‘reel wisdom’).

The Karate Kid (1984) is one such example. The story, in a nutshell, is that of an insecure boy, Daniel, whose life is turned around when he learns karate with the wise Mr. Miyagi. Now, this sounds like the typical sophomoric 1980’s teenage flick. But, as Christopher Richardson remarks in a paper dedicated entirely to analysing Mr. Miyagi’s educational philosophy, “there are deeper currents below this clichéd surface.”

One of Mr. Miyagi’s standards of teaching is indirectness. It is worth following Richardson’s analysis: “Miyagi does not teach in a ‘linear’ fashion. He does not say to Daniel: ‘OK, time to learn defence. What is defence? Well defence consists of several ...’. He doesn’t even tell Daniel that he is starting with defence. He tells him to wash the car, sand the floor, paint the fence, paint the house... What he does do is give Daniel explicit instructions as to how to do these manual jobs, but Daniel does not know why he must do it this way.”

Indirectness—if applied wisely—has many educational benefits. For one, the tension of mystery that builds up is incredibly effective in the learning process. It not only disciplines the student, but in the epiphany moment, when the purpose of the manual jobs is finally understood, the consciousness of the student is enriched and elevated. The student’s mind is lifted to a higher plane of understanding.

We gain similar insights from the well-known story of Prophet Moses and al-Khidr. In both stories the sages agree to teach their disciples as long as they ask no questions, in both stories the disciples lose their patience, and in both stories a new level of awareness is achieved when the teachers reveal the purpose of the ‘exercises’.

Whether we are talking about the martial arts, the liberal arts, or more ‘artsy’ arts, it is this deep understanding—that profound realization of purpose—that is most essential. An artist only succeeds when they constantly treat themselves as a tool to be disciplined and refined—when they themselves become a work of art in progress. It goes something along the lines of the wise words of Bruce Lee: “I do not hit, it hits all by itself.”

To conclude, this discussion deserves more time and attention. My aim was simply to revive interest in a forgotten tradition that should in reality be a serious topic of discussion and research on the part of educators and policy makers.

We suffer today from what Adler calls “cultural provincialism”. We are familiar only with current ideas and read only current books. As a result, we fail to realize that the fundamental human problems remain the same across all ages. Yet, if we studied the history of education well, then we would find out that what we think of as ‘ancient ideas’ are actually “the most potent civilizing forces in the world today.”

Photo credits: hannes.a.schwetz

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