I always seem to get stuck on the art supplies—especially when it comes to deciding what is for “Art” and what is for “School,” because when you’re in second grade there isn’t a lot of difference. Crayons are used for both. Crayola markers—of the size, tip shape, and color specified on the second-grade school supply sheet—are used for both. Scissors, colored pencils, regular pencils, rulers—all are used for both. I often worry what is happening to our children’s creativity thanks to “initiatives” like the Common Core and our increasing obsession with multiple-choice standardized tests, so I’m glad to see that in reality, teachers in the lower elementary grades still see educational value in creative projects requiring scissors and crayons.
Contrary to widespread perception, all my children’s elementary teachers (public schools, by the way) have been remarkably gifted and dedicated educators who understand what kids need and know how to recognize and tap into each child’s strengths. Legislators (most of whom have never taught a day in their lives), software-rich financiers, and for-profit educational corporations might foist their narrow visions of curriculum on the system, but those who spend their days with actual children know what kids need and are becoming more innovative than ever as they find ways to incorporate creativity into curricula geared toward Multiple Choice Madness. At least in the public elementary school that my kids have been fortunate enough to attend, “learning” and “having fun” aren’t automatically assumed to be opposites.
But for too many of us, the time comes when all that changes. Enjoyment, creativity, expression—things we think of as “fun”—become the opposite of the so-called "real" world of serious work, meaning “how we earn our money.” Enter “reality” and you must put away your crayons. Or, if you insist on keeping them--literally or metaphorically--you must separate them from your “real” (i.e., money-earning) pursuits. Real life, adult life, money-earning life, is not for having fun, expressing yourself, enjoying yourself. We’re a weirdly confused society in that on the one hand we promote utter superficiality and the mindless pursuit of escapism, yet on the other hand we still harbor a deep distrust of excessive pleasure. If you are paid to do something, you are morally obligated not to enjoy it too much.
I’ve noticed this fear of pleasure in more than one cultural pocket. I was raised in a somewhat culturally separatist religious community that frowned upon dancing, rock ‘n roll music, playing cards, movies, and bowling (smoking and drinking were, of course, not even thinkable). One paradoxical advantage of such an upbringing: You can rebel without truly endangering yourself. My classmates might have to do something outrageous like drop acid to make a statement against The Man, but all I had to do was.... go to the prom. By the time I reached adolescence, I had the distinct impression that “sin” and pleasure were synonyms, and whenever I was in a good mood, I worried that I might be doing something evil. (As a teen I left the church I was raised in, and I spent the better part of my twenties letting loose the baggage. I considered it a moral victory when I spent five guilt-free hours in the Swiss Alps, drinking pear schnapps.)
Having been warned throughout childhood of the evils of “secular humanism,” when I entered the university in my thirties I expected to meet people who were highly intelligent. Since the church had taught me that these people worshiped Satan, I also expected them to be a lot of fun—certainly more hedonistic than some of the dour Puritans around whom I was raised. (I refer here not so much to my own immediate family; within the context of our community, my parents were minor rebels themselves.) Thus, I was surprised to discover an insidious neo-Puritanism had infected many in the academic crowd--people who ostensibly don’t believe in Puritanism.
For instance, I was taught early on that I must never say in an academic paper that I “enjoyed” or “liked” what I was writing about; we are not here to enjoy ourselves but to analyze, to think critically, to interpret. I learned that including words like “passion” in your grad school application is a surefire way to land it in the reject pile. (Not everyone who taught me this necessarily subscribed to such beliefs themselves, but they were warning me because they knew—correctly—that my application would be read by people who did.) If you want to be taken seriously as a scholar, it’s important to demonstrate that you are suffering. Too much enthusiasm and you'll be booted out, banished to whatever passes for hell in academia.
To some extent, this makes sense. After all, education isn’t just about what you “like” and “don’t like,” and the whole point of learning is to stretch beyond our initial reactions and gut instincts. I often speak to my students about the difference between “appreciating” a work of art and “liking” it; I tell them I don’t particularly “like” Quentin Tarantino films because violence bothers me, but as someone who studies literature, I can “appreciate” the way he breaks new storytelling ground. I'm a respectable enough teacher to feel frustrated when my students’ responses to a piece of literature get stuck on “I don't like this”—or even “I loved this!” Go a little beyond your first reaction, I tell them; that’s what an educated, thinking person does.
Yet isn’t some level of “enjoyment” the point of artistic expression? Shouldn’t the artist (whether literary or otherwise) experience some pleasure in creating the work? Shouldn’t the audience experience some pleasure in encountering and interpreting it? Analysis should remain at the core of what we do as scholars and educators. But are we sometimes too afraid that if we experience pleasure in the process, we might become “academic sinners”?
Could our deep cultural suspicion of pleasure be part of what fuels some of the animosity toward the arts and humanities? Business classes are “serious”—you learn about money, how to maximize profits, how to extract it from people. Serious, important stuff. Science and math classes are “serious,” because they are difficult. Those who succeed in them must have spent many hours in misery, and now they are inflicting misery on others; clearly, they deserve their relatively higher salaries.
But literature professors? Come on! They are just reading stories, and that’s for little kids, and it’s easy, and it’s fun. They don’t deserve money. Hell, maybe they shouldn’t even be teaching classes; didn’t we all learn to read a long time ago? Art professors? Drawing pictures, making little sculptures, are you kidding--isn't kindergarten supposed to be over? Music professors? That flash mob looks like they’re having fun, and people who are having fun shouldn't get to make money. (But wait; some studies show that studying music raises standardized test scores and boosts your performance in math, so we might want to re-think music--but not because it's worthy on its own terms.) History professors? They’re just telling stories, about stuff that happened a long time ago; what’s real and what matters is the bottom line, right now. Philosophy? Comparative religion? You just sitting around talking about other people’s harebrained ideas, and while sitting around talking can be fun, you certainly shouldn’t expect to make money from that (after all, ideas don't do anything to shape our society, do they?).
Money should go to pursuits that are important (i.e., geared toward making more money). Money should go to people who are suffering. (Not "suffering" in the sense of being an underpaid, over-controlled minion in some fast food franchise or big box chain store—we don’t mean that kind of suffering, because anyone lowly enough to have such a job probably deserves their fate anyway.) Money should go to people who have set aside childish things. People who want to make a living doing something they might actually enjoy?—That's preposterous. We don't have enough money for that. (Let's not talk about some of the things we do have enough money for--weapons, for instance...)
I wonder to what extent such attitudes--largely unexpressed, yet pervasive--might contribute to the institutional diminishment of the performing arts, fine arts, liberal arts, and humanities. I also wonder whether a strange fear of pleasure factors into our own complicity in making our own professional lives more miserable. We ensure our courses are “rigorous” enough that our students won’t state in teacher evaluations that a course was “fun” (that's a death knell if we come up for reappointment or promotion). We devise, or subscribe to, theories so cognitively elaborate and jargon-filled that anyone who studies them will experience the deep level of misery appropriate to any serious intellectual pursuit. We create labyrinthine requirements, parse the definitions and connotations of words ad nauseum, develop endless committees, stir up internecine fights, and basically do whatever we can to make sure we are miserable enough to be considered worthy.
(And to think all this was prompted by my dilemma regarding whether to put the crayons in the “Art” container or the “School” container. No wonder my attempt at home organization is moving so slowly.)