Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Arts and Evolution

In a recent Canadian Broadcasting radio show called Ideas, host Paul Kennedy interviewed Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. In his book, Dutton argues that as humans we adapted during the Pleistocene Era to appreciate art and we continue to evolve as a species in our love of various forms of art; in addition, Dutton counters the notion that art is culturally determined. Dutton looks at commonalities among cultures over time and among different places and proposes the notion that we have evolved in our love of art in the same way that we have evolved physically. Whether one agrees with Dutton's argument that a love of art is culturally determined or innate in us as a species, his concept that people go through evolutionary leaps in their appreciation of art is thought provoking. If you're interested in listening to this show, or other episodes of this weekly radio program, check out this link. http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/ CBC's show Ideas can also be podcasted and found on iTunes.

As I listened to the conversation with Dutton, I recalled a recent article in the New York Times Education Life Magazine on how elderly adults can continue to learn and keep their brains sharp. According to this article, called How To Train The Aging Brain, we tend to become more distracted as we get older, and as a result, we forget what we have read or the movies we have seen. (Shocking, I know.) "Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming." However, all is not lost; on the contrary, as we age, we become more proficient at seeing the big picture and tying things together than we did when we were younger. For this article, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03adult

Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, believes that one way for us older adults to learn more and be more mentally agile is to study ideas that question our pre-conceived notions or concepts that we have always believed true. We need to confront notions we always thought of as givens or learn new material that call on us to see the world differently or make our brains get out of a rut and plow new ground. For example, we should begin to study a foreign language. (I realized this on a personal level recently as I prepared to read Torah for the first time in thirty years for my son's Bar Mitzvah, and noticed that my brain felt amazingly energized and alive.) As individuals continue to grow and develop by making leaps and bounds between the old and familiar to the new and unknown, they act out on a microcosmic level the evolutionary path as a species that Dutton describes.

As educators and as parents, shouldn't this be the way we teach our students and children? Isn't a part of good teaching asking our children to confront what they have always believed and help them find out what is true on their own? We should expose them to multiple and even contradictory viewpoints in history and literature; we should have them grapple with concepts in science and math that make them question what they previously thought; learning a foreign language can be a fun experience but it should cause students to move out of their comfort zone. In essence, our role is to create those moments when students can have an epiphany, not in the religious sense but in the ancient Greek notion of a "sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something...." (Wikipedia) For these moments to be authentic and meaningful, they must include some struggle and temporary discomfort for that is when the growth can truly occur and students can move to an entirely new level.

Much of the joy in teaching and parenting comes when we witness our students having an "a-ha" experience and knowing right then and there that they, and their world, will never be the same. As parents, we take great joy when our children discover something that may confuse but also excite them. It is in the rare and powerful moments when the world seems to stop and they make their own evolutionary leaps that we can smile and take pride in their development; as a result, we can feel optimistic for the young men and women in front of us and sanguine for our species as a whole.