I came upon this passage from John Ruskin’s 1858 inaugural address for the Cambridge School of Art and could not help but see a parallel to what I’ve been struggling with in my classroom:
“Of course, there is always a vast temptation, felt both by the master and the student, to struggle towards visible results, and obtain something beautiful, creditable, or saleable, in a way of actual drawing: but the more I see of schools, the more reason I see to look with doubt upon those which produce too many showy and complete works by pupils. A showy work will always be found, on stern examination of it, to have been done by some conventional rule; –some servile compliance with directions which the student does not see the reason for; and representation of truths which he has not himself perceived: the execution of such drawings will be found monotonous and lifeless; their light and shade specious and formal, but false. A drawing which the pupil has learned much in doing, is nearly always full of blunders and mishaps, and it is highly necessary for the formation of a truly public or universal school of Art, that the masters should not try to conceal or anticipate such blunders, but only seek to employ, the pupil’s time so as to get the most precious results for his understanding and his heart, not his hand”
This paragraph gets to the problem of the teacher-directed/determined project in the art studio, where all the interesting visual problems are resolved by the teacher in advance or in real time and the student is merely complying with the execution. I’m thinking about all the times when I’ve hovered by a student and spouted off a thousand ideas to resolve their problem for them or when instruction is delivered as a series of directives to be followed to a T. I’ve been steadily moving away from that model of teaching in order to allow for more mishaps and blunders to be visible. However it is not easy, for the students often demand perfection from the start and are under pressure from outside sources to strive towards it. I find this a debilitating force in the classroom at times and so much of my energy is needed to provide the time and space for play and discovery. Later in his speech Ruskin talks how the only way to get at good Art, is to ENJOY it. Yes, that’s what I’ll keep close to my heart as I navigate the rest of the year with my students.