Those are words to delight any teacher, especially one who loves to test new ideas. This comment was from a student in my Through the Lens American Literature class. A glutton for punishment, he is taking a traditional American Lit class as well as my experimental class, but he said he finds himself constantly creating images in his head for the books he reads in the other class. I love that; it validates my approach using the visual to analyze the written word.
I’ve had similar comments in the past. I have ruined movies, pop music, formula fiction, and bad art for multiple students because I teach them to think, analyze, and decide whether what they choose to see, hear, and purchase is worthwhile.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German philosopher/scientist/literary genius (1749-1832), is my hero for providing all thinkers with three simple questions for determining the value of any art:
- What is artist trying to do?
- How well does he do it?
- Is it worth doing?
I have used those questions in theater appreciation classes, literary discussions, composition workshops, and now in my experimental class. Without fail, students who internalize those three questions find themselves unwilling to spend time and/or money on things they decide don’t meet the standard of value. The beauty of the questions is in the fact that the first two are generally objective, but the third is completely subject to a personal paradigm. This requires students to identify and define their owns world views, and decide their own priorities. This requires high level critical thinking and introspection that many adults believe is out of the intellectual grasp of most teenagers. I disagree. There are those who cannot think for themselves, but there are plenty of adults who want to be told what to believe, too. I prefer to err on the side of higher expectations for my students, and I am generally justified.
What is the artist trying to do?
This the the theme/message/purpose of the artwork. It’s often a challenge to find this concept without a sense of context, so history becomes important. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a great book, but it becomes powerful when put in the context of the Cold War, and prophetic when brought into the 21st century. Even without a historical context, great literature (and music and art and dance) always presents some universal message that can be identified and understood.
How well does he do it?
This second question is about technique. Does the artist follow the rules of his form? Are the rules he bends beneficial to the form? Is the language clear? Does shape and color and pitch and tone promote the message? Does each element work together to support the whole?
Is it worth doing?
This third question is the one that separates the artist who has a message to communicate from the one who just wants to sell something. Even the Absurdists wanted to shock and stun audiences into some new understanding. This question requires considerable time and thought. At first glance my students are disgusted by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but once they dig into the message, the context, the powerful symbols, and the brilliant technique, they come to appreciate it. Some even come to like it. It may not be a favorite genre, but it becomes valuable because its message and the method of presenting it create enlightenment. Other art pieces (literary, visual, or performance) may not be deemed worthy because either the technique or the message is lacking.
Worthiness is also highly subjective. Students in high school are beginning to discover who they are, what they believe, and how they want to approach life. It is the time of life when they begin to separate themselves from parents, looking for their own answers to life’s great questions. As they begin to form their own world views, worthiness becomes a variable, not a constant. It may be disturbing to hovering parents, but it is exciting for this teacher to watch teens find value in something for themselves. I love to hear, “I love this book” from the students whose parents say, “They’re reading what?” It’s even more fun when parents tell me about lively dinner table conversations about whatever book is currently under scrutiny.
Being unorthodox as a teacher means taking risks, and teaching high schoolers to think for themselves is certainly that. I am convinced, however, that students benefit immediately from coming to their own conclusions, and society benefits ultimately as these same students become adults who work, vote, and lead the next generation.