Just Put a Guitar in My Hands
Singer-Songwriters, the Liberal Arts, and Engaged Citizenship
@ Lexi Adams Photography: http://on.fb.me/1fU3b23
"You don't change the world by lobbying numbers, slogans, or arguments at people. You do it by changing the story of despair or powerlessness to one of real possibility. Things would change if everyone lifted their voices as citizens of the world, calling out what doesn't reflect their deepest values, and standing up for what does."
"The Culture of Possibility: This title alone opens doors, and Arlene Goldbard offers more on every page. By showing us that culture is the crucible in which we forge our laws and our government as well as our values and families, she restores our power as unique individuals and as creative communities. The idea that all change comes from the top is the propaganda of those who wish it were true. This book encourages us to take back our power through unique and communal creativity."
I have a dream.
What if one of the primary aims of higher education is to encourage creativity? And what if colleges might do this by giving everyone a guitar on the first day of class and offering free guitar lessons? Or, if this is too expensive, at least by encouraging their singer-songwriters to showcase their talents, taking singing and songwriting as a part of the educational process?
Something like this is happening at Hendrix College. The school has made it possible for singer-songwriters to showcase their talents, even giving them a kind of credit for it; and the students have created an album called Hear Hendrix. Listen and enjoy; it's free.
I think the album is very good, but some of these students are my students, so I won't play favorites. I like all the songs. But I do want to affirm the very idea that higher education and creating music can go together. The coalescence helps create a culture of possibility on a college campus and perhaps also a culture of possibility for the world.
It seems to me that in the 21st century one of the best things a college can do for a student is to help the student become more creative in his or her way...and for two reasons! One is that it is empowering in its own right, helping a person become more alive as an individual. That is part of what education is, or should be about, to help a student become more whole.
A second is that, when channeled in constructive directions, creativity can add beauty to the world and lives of others. We live in a world that needs people who can turn problems into creative possibilities. Joy and compassion, satisfaction and service -- these are among the reasons why creativity in higher education is so important.
Of course there are many forms of creativity: verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, introspective, ecological and spiritual. All of them have an important role to play in higher education, so I need to reframe my dream just a bit. It we don't give all the students guitars when they enter college, then at least we can give them scrapbooks, or palettes, or cameras, or recipe books, or screwdrivers, or cross-word puzzles, or sewing machines, or garden tools, or dancing shoes. They key is to give them opportunities for creative self-expression.
Why is this so important today? It seems to me that in too many colleges only two kinds of intelligence are emphasized -- verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical knowledge -- almost as if there is a hierarchy of ways of knowing, with words and numbers at the top and more embodied forms of wisdom at the bottom. The need is to take a hierarchy of ways of knowing and put it on its side, saying all are important and all are conducive to a kind of education that can help a person become more fully alive and live compassionately in the world. If modernity refers to a cultural tradition that prioritizes quantity at the expense of quality, information at the expense of wisdom, technology at the expense of compassion, then what is needed is a constructively postmodern alternative.
Hendrix College leans in this post-hierarchical, constructively postmodern direction. At Hendrix you learn something through a careful reading of texts; you learn something by doing an experiment in the lab; you learn something by learning to write; and you learn something by playing the guitar. It's called whole person education, and it may be just what the world needs today.
But it's not enough. We also need engaged citizenship, lest whole person education become too individualistic.
Let's be honest. Higher education around the world is failing at its task. In an age of global climate change, unjust gaps between rich and poor, political breakdown, violence and warfare, suppression and repression, and the ongoing threat of nuclear war, the world needs socially engaged citizens who have grown beyond the narcissism of consumer culture, who care about communities both local and global, and who have skills that can help them earn a living and contribute to the well-being of life on earth. Higher education ought to be helping students become engaged in just this way, but it is not.
This is because two kinds of higher education dominate the scene today, neither of which are up to the task: vocational schools and research universities. Vocational schools seek to provide students with deliverable skills for the marketplace at the expense of giving them broader perspective; and research universities take as their aim the production of new knowledge at the expense of helping students become whole persons.
Is there an alternative? Yes, and it seems to me that, here again, Hendrix College provides a good example. If you ask faculty at Hendrix College what its aims are, they will make reference to marketable skills and undergraduate research. But they will quickly add that they want to help students become, in the words of one anthropology professor, creative, thoughtful, empathetic, problem-solvers who can help bring about a better world. Skill-based training and discipline-specific education are not enough. There is a need for engaged citizenship.
Toward this end Hendrix College has developed a course required of all first-year students called The Engaged Citizen in which students learn about ways that different academic disciplines can help meet the needs of a world in need. Here is how it is described on the Hendrix College website:
The Engaged Citizen is a semester course required of all first-year students entering Hendrix College. The theme of the “engaged citizen” combines the spirit of Hendrix’s Odyssey program with the college’s stated purpose of preparing “its graduates for lives of service and fulfillment in their communities and the world.” From philosophers and physicists to artists and anthropologists, we all approach questions about what it means to be involved in our communities, whether locally or globally, in different ways.
Of course this is only the beginning, and there are many others ways to encourage engaged citizenship in addition to a first-year course. Another way that Hendrix encourages engaged citizenship is by offering course credit for service-learning courses, by having a tremendously vital volunteer program, by fostering numerous open forums on matters of political and social importance, and by offering scholarships. Some of this is done through the Miller Center for Vocation, Ethics, and Calling and another through a special project in civic engagement called Project Pericles.
But back to the guitar and singer-songwriting. Let's say that one of the most important things we can do in the world today, for the sake of the world itself, it to give voice to the world, not simply as a collection of data but rather, to use the language of Arlene Goldbard, a republic of stories. Is it not the case that this is exactly what singer-songwriters are doing all the time: sharing stories from the heart and imagination that belong, not always to the songwriters themselves, but to the larger world. Aren't singer-songwriters doing in our time what psalmists did in earlier times?
The psalms of the Bible were poems that were put to music which then helped people understand what they were feeling. They expressed emotions of anger, pleasure, hope, fear, love, anxiety, jealousy, protest, confusion, self-pity, praise, and tenderness. Of course the psalms were addressed to God while many popular songs are addressed to more human lovers. But the function is the same: to help us hear the yearnings of the mind and heart concerning what has been and what is and what can be. Aren't singer-songwriters, in this very way, as socially engaged as, say, the economist or the politician or the pediatrician?
Don't we need the poems and the music, too? Bring on the guitars.