Education Opinion

Seeing the Big Picture

By Susan Graham — March 02, 2009 3 min read
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A few weeks ago an article by Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik caught my attention. I tore it out and left in on my desk. I keep going back to it. Gopnik says,

A few hours spent with the 48 paintings in "Pride of Place," the latest groundbreaking show from curator Arthur Wheelock, suggests that we might want to hunt for a proper, up-close viewing spot for every image. That's not what this exhibition is officially about; it's more focused on the urban world its pictures show. But it highlights something more profound: that over the past few centuries, we've lost all clue of how to look at classic Dutch pictures. Literally: We don't know how to use our eyes to take these pictures in, where to stand to do it and what to look for once we've got to where we need to be.

First of all, I tend to think about Art as something in a museum and somehow different than art that is available in local galleries or art that might actually hang on my own walls. Gopnik reminded me that those pictures were painted as renderings of actual cityscapes rather than “works of art”. But what really struck me was this—these paintings were not done for a gallery, they were purchased as personal possessions. Of course I knew that, but it had never really impacted my viewing experience. All of a sudden, there was a voyeuristic sense of peeking over the shoulder of the original owners and trying to see the pictures through their eyes. Now I am wondering--is a work of art about the subject, the artist, the commissioner, or the viewer?

It seems to me that these same questions make sense to think about as we view public education. We spend a lot of time looking and a lot of time talking about what we see in our schools, and while we spend a lot of time and energy analyzing and critiquing education, there is still a lot of disagreement about the process and the product. Maybe we have different reasons for looking -- or maybe we’re just looking at it the wrong way. I’m thinking about what Gopnik said about those Dutch cityscapes.

We don’t know how to use our eyes to take these pictures in.

We talk about taking school “snapshots.” Snapshots are handy. They are quick and inexpensive. They freeze a moment in time and provide an accurate reproduction of what is seen through the viewfinder. But really viewing a school is more like viewing scenery out of a train window. The fixed images in a snapshot may be easier to focus upon, but they are cut-outs, devoid of context. Do we become frustrated in our efforts to “look” at school because we have obsess on frozen frames, rather than allowing the images to flow as a continuum of experience? Do we zoom in so closely when we “disaggregate” data that we lose the framework in which that information has authentic meaning? Do we zoom out so far that we can’t see the details that matter? What’s just beyond the edge of the captured image? Does it matter?

We don’t know where to stand to do it.

We talk about a “slanted view” as a bad thing, but Gopnik explains that the Dutch Masters did not intend for all paintings to be viewed from the center front position. The placement of the picture in the room -- and location of the viewer in the room space -- were anticipated as part of the picture design. The picture itself doesn’t change, but the viewing experience might be very different over here or over there.

So when we look at an education experience, where do we stand to observe? With outside researchers? School administrators? Higher education providers? Future employers? Classroom teachers? Parents? Or students? If the school picture looks “wrong,” how can we be sure that what needs to change is the school -- or the perspective of the viewer?

We don’t know what to look for once we’ve got to where we need to be.

We talk about what teaching and learning ought to look like, without ever really being clear about what we want an education to do. Pictures have different purposes. Their intent may be to record an event, evoke an emotion, preserve a memory, provide documentation, honor an individual, or just please the eye. A great work of art might do all of those things, but it is unrealistic to expect all art to accomplish all of them. Knowing more about the subject of the work, the mind of the artists, the goals of the person who commissioned the work, and cultural setting in which the work was produced my help us understand more about how to view a work of art.

So what exactly is it that we are looking for in public education? Do we value symmetry over emphasis? Are we looking for accuracy or imagination? Should education inspire or indoctrinate? Do we want an education that gives us answers or asks us questions?

There are a lot of people critiquing the “art” of educating our children. Is the picture of public education all wrong? Or is it that we don’t always know how to look, or where to stand, or what to look for once we’ve got to where we need to be? I don’t know the answers, but it seems to me that the questions are worth asking.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.