From the Principal’s Desk – 14 March, 2019
With the much-anticipated High School One-Act House Plays taking place this evening, I was reminded of an interview I had with Stephanie Perrin, the Headmistress of Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Boston in the United States. At the time I was on an overseas trip visiting some of the top Music, Visual and Performing Arts High Schools in America and the United Kingdom.
Stephanie Perrin is one of the foremost advocates of the value of the study of the Arts in schools. In one of her articles, “Arts and the Psychological Growth of Adolescents”, she writes about how the serious study of the arts (music, theatre, visual arts, dance and creative writing) supports healthy adolescent development. She comments on the challenges of adolescent development and how involvement in the arts can assist the young student in successfully meeting these challenges. I quote just a few of the points she makes:
A colleague once said that the motion of education should mirror the motion of life; there should be a connection between what we are doing in school and what adolescents are trying to accomplish psychologically…
- Taking risks
Adolescents are big risk-takers partly because they need to test out who they are becoming and partly because they are often clueless. They think they are invincible. The study of the arts provides young people with a constructive and meaningful outlet for risk taking. It has always amused me when people speak about young artists as effete, hothouse flowers, not up to the hard knocks of this world. On the contrary, young artists are huge risk-takers. How many of us would willingly get up in a public venue and perform? Young artists are always up on stage, standing beside their canvas, or passing out copies of their stories, unfurling in public their deepest dreams and desires for praise and/or criticism. Young artists understand that making mistakes is how they will grow. Mistakes tell them where the work is. Young artists take big personal and emotional risks all the time because they understand that if they stick to what they can easily do they will not grow, and the next step is playing at the country club dance.
- Finding meaning
There is a very powerful relationship between the arts and one of the most positive aspects of adolescents, their strong sense of idealism. The desire for greater meaning in life is an impulse that I think of as the desire for aesthetic knowing. It is the longing, particularly poignant and strong in adolescence, for the good, the true, and the beautiful, for an experience that surpasses individual and daily reality. Adolescents feel this deeply and need to express these feelings in ways that are authoritative and appropriate. The study of the arts requires that the young artists reflect on themselves and their feelings in an orderly fashion, and that they shape those feelings and impulses into work that speaks to others.
An interesting thing about “passion” is that the Latin root means “passing, undergoing, suffering.” Passion — defined by the dictionary as “powerful emotion, object of strong desire, boundless enthusiasm” — consistently lived in the world in a way that engages others, is demanding and involves a great deal of suffering. Tasks are hard, goals high, competition strong, and disappointments great and often. Choosing to follow this path is not for the faint of heart.
- Developing imagination and vision
In addition to the rigor of technical training in the arts, there is much in it that is about play and experimentation, about fooling around with an open mind and heart, and freeing the imagination. An education that systemically develops the imagination is richer, more complex, and more active than one that does not. The imagination is where new ideas are created and progress becomes possible. Einstein famously remarked that “imagination is more important than knowledge” because knowledge is about what we already know, whereas imagination is what moves individuals and cultures forward to the next new thing, whether it is chaos theory or a way of understanding a problem in painting. Central to the work of young artists is the requirement that they develop their imagination, using it to progress to new levels of performance and understanding.
The focus of arts training is not on finding the right answer, but on identifying the right question. The desired outcome is not a finished product, but progress towards a better answer today than yesterday. One of the most salient characteristics of young artists (as opposed to other adolescents) described in the monograph “Champions for Change” is a “resistance to early closure.” It is the process and the complexity of the question or challenge itself that interests young artists, not finding the answer or being done as one is with a course in chemistry at the end of the year. One of the characteristics of a mature ego is the ability to live with ambiguity, to seek out the open questions of life. Young artists must develop comfort in chaos early on — indeed must welcome it, because, as Pascal noted, “it is the source of all new ideas.”
These observations are made at a time when the world is in tremendous flux…I believe we are not suffering because we lack technological skills or resources. Indeed, as a civilization, we are incredibly sophisticated and rich in both areas. We are suffering because we lack vision, commitment to a reality beyond the self, and a desire and ability to work for the good — all qualities young artists are asked to develop. The crisis of this century is not material but spiritual, and the arts are one powerful way to engage the spiritual drive in developing young adults. The study of the arts supports in adolescents the notion that work and life should have meaning, should engage others, and should satisfy the deepest desires of the soul and of the culture.
We are fortunate at Hout Bay International School that the Arts are integrated into our curriculum from the Early Years to the Diploma Programme, feature strongly in the co-curricular programme and are showcased in our many exhibitions, performances and productions throughout the year. I look forward to further strengthening and expanding our Arts offering at our school in the future.