How We Learn
There is a psychological dynamic that happens when you make your own discoveries as a learner. The stuff they told me at school belonged to the teachers, a kind of official knowledge they already knew and was already in the textbooks and they insisted that I had to know it too. Even when I memorized that information for tests, it never really belong to me, it always seemed to belong to them. But my private learning was this subversive and surreptitious learning, not sponsored or imposed by parents or teachers. Here I explored and learned things because I wanted to know for myself. It became my own learning and I could proudly claim it for myself. Does this sound odd to you? Surely I am not the only person to ever feel that way?
I am trying to make the case that people should not only know what helps them instrumentally to get a job and make money. Even if that job or central activity is being a potter or ceramic artist, to limit your own awareness and knowledge to only those things that have immediate relevance to just that one human activity, however special and creative, is to limit the growth and development of your own range of abilities and capabilities. I think great curiosity about the world and the manifest richness and diversity of both the natural environment and human culture can naturally lead to a focus on particular activities. But that does not mean you have to give up the rest and limit yourself just to one corner of the garden. As you go through school, there is increasing pressure for you to narrow your interests to an isolated area of knowledge that might have some practical ability to someday help you get a job and make a living. But I don’t think school on any level, including college, should become a job-training program for just one kind of work. We should resist being put in a box, even if that is a pottery box, and you know how I love pottery. We are not just one kind of person, we are all many- splendid creatures and we cannot be totally explained by any one single identification.
Quality of Life
John Ruskin, the 19th century British writer, said, “there is no wealth but life”. He meant that we need to encompass the totality of life within our grasp and comprehension, that no isolated or specialized area or activity can contain the essence of life itself. Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, courageous leader in the fight against communism in his country and former president of that country has this say about how we misdirect our energy and efforts and squeeze out the really important things in our lives,
“The dictatorship of money, of profit, of constant economic growth, and the necessity, flowing from all that, of plundering the earth without regard for what will be left in a few decades, along with everything else related to the materialistic obsessions of this world, from the flourishing of selfishness to the need to evade personal responsibility by becoming part of the herd, and the general inability of human conscience to keep pace with the inventions of reason, right up to the alienation created by the sheer size of modern institutions – all of these are phenomena that cannot effectively be confronted except through a new moral effort, that is, through a transformation of the spirit and the human relationship to life and the world.”
Well, that sounds like a big undertaking and an even greater challenge. Havel is indicating that what we need right now is moral knowledge and new kinds of relationships with each other and the earth. According to Havel, we need more intimate caring for each other and the environment and we need to further develop and apply our moral conscience. Where do we learn about that? How do we learn to become successful human beings as well as being successful in our careers? Do ceramic artists and potters have some wisdom about these issues? Did they make choices in their youth that said the quality of life was the real wealth of life? And that quality of life had to involve creating beautiful things and celebrating that beauty as an intrinsic part of their lives? I have this to say about William Morris and his friend and mentor, John Ruskin, in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, in relationship to Havel’s quote,
“To understand the stained glass windows, wallpapers, and tapestries of William Morris, you must understand the aesthetics of John Ruskin. As we know Ruskin never made stained glass windows, wallpaper or tapestries. Why did Morris bother with Ruskin? To understand William Morris and John Ruskin, two privileged members of the English upper class, you have to understand why they organized seminars and presented lectures to industrial workers, even though those workers could not afford to travel to Italy with Ruskin or buy the wares of Morris. Havel would understand, it was to share ‘…that transformation of the spirit and the human relationship to life.’ We are all ordinary and remarkable, and we are all eligible for that transformation.”
Waiting for the Future
There are many benefits in pursuing interests that you don’t necessarily add to your job resume. Everything you know and everything you have experienced in life enriches you and makes you more complicated. You might well retort, particularly in these perilous times of recession and high unemployment, that preparing for a good job is all important and comes first. It is easy for me to ruminate on these things, after all I am retired and I have my pension and health plan. It is even more difficult to take advice from someone born to wealth, such as John Ruskin, already quoted above, who had a great influence on the Arts & Crafts movement there. I quote Ruskin many times in my book. I found and used in my book this quote of Ruskin’s in a wonderful biography of Ruskin, “The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin” by John Dixon Hunt. Here is what Ruskin has to say about the benefits of pursuing knowledge in difficult times,
“…does the pursuit of any art or science, for the mere sake of the resultant beauty or knowledge, tend to forward this end? That such pursuits are beneficial and ennobling to our nature is self-evident, but have we leisure for them in our perilous circumstances? Is it a time to be spelling of letters or touching of strings, counting stars or crystallizing dewdrops, while the earth is failing under our feet, and our fellows are departing every instant into eternal pain?”
I don’t know exactly what the ‘perilous circumstances’ that Ruskin was talking about in this comment. Maybe something to do with the awful living conditions in Britain for workers during the industrial revolution, maybe some war the British Empire was waging somewhere at the time. The point is that there are always excuses and reasons not to do what you yearn and dream of doing and learning. Things always seem bad, the economy always seems in trouble, war or the threat of war is always on the horizon and there is never enough money in the bank account to pay for those special things after you pay the mortgage and I am not even going to talk about the price of gas. So we often put our dreams on the back burner as being unrealistic or impractical. Our dreams might include exploring, engaging and discovering new creative realms and experiences, traveling to foreign lands and experiencing different cultures; learning about some subject or theme that has always intrigued you but you never had the time to explore; all these adventures somehow never seem convenient, never easy.
Many of us delay our real life adventures and learning about new or different things to some day in the distant future. We promise ourselves that we will do all these things when the kids grow up; the nest is empty or when we retire. Then we will finally have the time to actually do what we have always dreamed about. But when that day finally arrives, all too often people find out they don’t have the energy or even the desire anymore. They waited too long. What is left is a lot of time that they don’t know what to do with. There is nothing they want to know and there is nothing they want to do. The windows to wonders beyond their own immediate lives were closed a long time ago and they don’t know how to open them now. Retirement has been a blessing for me. But I know others for whom it has been an empty void they don’t know how to fill.
Sometimes the best things in life are really free – or nearly free. What are the things you do and the things that you learn about just for the sheer pleasure and joy these things bring you? I bet some of them don’t cost a dime. Do some of then, as Havel stated, involve “transformation of the spirit and the human relationship to life’’? Here I think that artists and craftspeople have a wonderful advantage over many others. I don’t believe that many of you walk into your studio with a sense of dread at having to be there and work with clay. If you can truly integrate what you want to do and what you want to know into your daily life, and even make some kind of income as a result – then you are indeed very fortunate and among the relative few able to pull that off. We can enjoy more than one kind of experience and more than one kind of knowing. There are many ways of knowing. I join you in the pleasures of being wide-awake and alive in the world. We use all our senses, all our energy and abilities to engage the world. Some of us even try to add something to that world – maybe a pot or maybe a page of thoughts or ideas. We are indeed a community of learners and makers. I think I am in very good company.