Education Outside School Walls

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These days, it may cost as much to go to a popular art exhibit as to a sports event. Street scalpers were said to have gotten as much for the "free" tickets to view 70 works by Vincent Van Gogh at Washington's National Gallery of Art this year as they normally get for a Redskins game in a winning season. First-rate opera in New York City with famous participants requires as lavish an outlay as seats at a World Series game. Restaurants that delight one appropriately before and after these occasions require comparable largess.

Even though such high-level pleasure calls for extravagant financial resources and cultivated intellect and refined taste, we don't normally develop, in the usual classroom, the requisite expertise in art, music, sports, or dining. Few high school or college programs encourage sophisticated appreciation of art, music, or any of the sumptuary delights, and even fewer offer a truly educated response to the abundant complexities of sports.

Nevertheless, millions of adults do derive deep pleasure from their appreciation of all of these forms of recreation, although they must nurture that appreciation haphazardly, privately, and, all too often, inadequately. Americans somewhat forlornly pride themselves on being autodidacts.

It seems time for schools on every level to recognize the prevalence and importance of the vast body of informal learning all of us regularly engage in. In a society that prides itself on social as well as political democracy, the standard curriculum should embrace, without invidious distinction, the rarer delights of high culture and good living as well as the denser ones of daily routine and survival.

We concentrate on college and university degrees for a career, but we proceed almost on our own in enhancing knowledgeable discrimination in the arts; advancing competence in sports, as participants or observers; refining indispensable manual skills; nurturing and heightening religious and moral instincts; increasing understanding of financial security; refining our palates. In such mundane pursuits as carpentry, cooking, sewing, plumbing, typing, preparing for retirement, most of us teach ourselves. What we learn is often hit or miss, the process filled with false starts and misconceptions, the results often frustratingly amateurish.

Formal, classroom-centered education has always tended to be elitist and more respected than the informal sort of education carried on in the world at large. However much we depend on specialists listed in the Yellow Pages, we bestow greater honor on holders of baccalaureates and doctorates. Even Shakespeare in his time, an icon of grand culture today, was condescended to by some of his contemporaries because he had small Latin and less Greek, to paraphrase Ben Jonson, and because his plays were beloved by the masses.

Society accepts new forms, new skills, new areas of knowledge, especially those that appeal to all classes, slowly and reluctantly. Universities have always been hesitant to regard seriously early novels and plays, any vernacular writing, and mass entertainments like movies, jazz, and television. Only in this century has higher education accepted American literature into the syllabus, or business theory in all its ramifications, or nursing, or journalism, or social work, or sociology.

But the evidence is overwhelming that more and more education takes place everywhere, all the time, that art overflows any one building, that literature exists outside the rare-book room, that television sometimes illuminates our world more informatively than anthropology, that artistry like Michael Jordan's belongs in the company of Mikhail Baryshnikov's. Architecture, one of the high arts, builds literally on craftsmanship with wood, steel, glass, stone, and concrete, the handling of which has commonly been thought of as "manual" and therefore "low." Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier worked in partnership with artisans. Would many reject Julia Child as a culinary and oenology artist of advanced order? Style and fashion in clothes and home furnishings inspire literate media attention today.

The spread of the high and low arts outside the classroom and the fixed hall is happening, but spottily, hesitantly. Slowly but emphatically, cities are becoming as proud of their art museums as of their athletic teams. The Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, will be associating itself with a small museum in a working-class neighborhood in Queens.

The spread of the high and low arts outside the classroom and the fixed hall is happening, but spottily, hesitantly.

Other urban galleries sponsor traveling exhibits of their collections to outlying communities. Sister Wendy on public television is introducing millions throughout the world to the subtleties of great art. Museums mail out costly catalogs of favorite exhibits to fans who never visit. I got less pleasure seeing the original Mona Lisa behind thick glass on a wall at the Louvre, while jostled by hundreds of other tourists, than from studying a good reproduction at home. Museums now mass-produce marvelously faithful reproductions of their priceless holdings.

While only a handful of schools in major cities focus on the study of fashion, cooking and baking, performing and creative arts, classical and mass music, plumbing and mechanics, or business and finance, more and more incorporate aspects of these in present courses. Colleges now offer computer basics, and research universities are introducing new disciplines like artificial intelligence that derive from computers.

So much more might be done once we recognize the need and the opportunities. As starters, we might put up reproductions of art masterpieces on the empty walls of public buildings, to provide pleasure and provoke curiosity. After all, we read our great writers in "reproductions," not the first editions themselves. We listen at home to faithful, first-rate recordings of classical symphonic music and jazz. Our kitchens, back yards, and basements are natural locales to develop domestic skills, to do homework in manual activities, to understand with our hands and bodies as well as with our minds something of the vast achievements of mankind outside school.

Of course, we must never scant the basic curriculum, sacrificing traditional subjects in favor of new ones. We must introduce new programs modestly and tentatively, sometimes only as supplements, ideally integrated with familiar material. I learned touch typing over a summer, an indispensable skill throughout my career as student and teacher; carpentry fundamentals in an afternoon short course; the subtleties of soccer in sessions taught an hour a week by the high school coach. My grandson studied sauces one term in a cooking class and comments knowingly when we eat out.

Society must widen its perspective of education's borders. Inclusive lifetime learning should not be confined within narrow walls or by comfortable custom.

Morris Freedman is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. His writing has appeared in a range of newspapers and journals, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and The American Scholar.

Vol. 18, Issue 42, Page 35

Published in Print: July 14, 1999, as Education Outside School Walls
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