Public education and us artistic types

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife earned a nine-point-some-odd million on her ACTs in high school.

I finished a chapter in Alissa Quart’s Branded: The buying and selling of teenagers this morning that dealt with teen’s preparation for college — particularly Ivy League colleges, where kids brand themselves as a Yale or Harvard or Brown caliber student. The context is Manhattan, New York City, something I’m plainly unfamiliar with. In the city, it’s common for upper-middle class students to hire SAT/college admission tutors for anywhere from $300-$500 an hour. The idea isn’t to get the best education at the most appropriate institution, but instead to save or create face. Towards the very end of the chapter, the director of a group for “unschooled” (i.e., “home-schooled”) kids bemoans the whole SAT/test-based reality of American public education.

This started me thinking, again, about my own public education experience. I was a good student (though my standardized test scores were nothing like my wife’s), graduating with something around a 3.7 GPA, and forced to attend an utterly boring celebratory dinner for being in the top 13% of my class (Why not the top 12.863 percent?). Before the dinner, my counselor asked what she should say about me in front of the dinner guests. I couldn’t suggest much to her; I hate being paraded in front of an audience to be bragged on.

High school wasn’t challenging for me. I was a pretty normal unmotivated teenage student when it came to schoolwork. Most of the time. The exception lay with my interest in architecture, and (somewhat) by extension all things visual. I took as many classes dealing with art and architecture as I could, though this was pitiful few in comparison to the number I wanted to take. I almost took nine classes (in an eight class school day) without lunch my senior year just to fit in the construction class, although in the end my unmotivation (and desire to eat) got the best of me. I ended up only taking seven classes with lunch every other day.

The real problem was in the lack of hands-on learning experiences in high school. Sure, I can learn in a lecture and do well on the test (and forget most of the information shortly thereafter), but I learn best actually taking on a project. It doesn’t matter how well the end product is; in fact, I’ll likely learn more by struggling through something and even by failing. I need application. This is why I was a mediocre math student but a half-decent physics student: The physics problems had an application. My working through them led to a feasible, physical and realistic solution.

I’m guessing a lot of students with artistic gifting function the same way. They may not be very good math or English or science students because they don’t learn best from lectures or books. Of course, these are the subjects harped upon by politicians. These are the subjects kids are tested on in the all-too-annoying fill-in-the-little-bubble tests. In high school and college I inevitably, when subjected to a bubble test, skipped a problem I didn’t know the answer to and promptly forget to leave the appropriate bubble on the answer sheet blank. Fifteen questions later I would realize my mistake, thus wiping out precious minutes on timed tests such as the ACT.

Artists are hands-on people. We want to have a brush in our hand, a lump of clay between our palms, a chisel trained on a piece of walnut. Sitting in uncomfortable and aesthetically unpleasant classrooms for seven hours a day does not take advantage of the creative gifts in tactilely creative people. It, in some respects, suppresses them into a certain dormant state.

I’m not suggesting an entirely different curriculum for people who learn better via actual experience. Reading, writing, history, science and arithmetic are important. Even artistic students need these skills, these basics. Kindergarten through eighth grade probably works within current models, although I had put numerous floor plans on paper — without specific training or encouragement — exercising my growing interest in architecture by the end of eighth grade.

I’m vaguely aware of certain high schools which offer tracks, giving pupils the ability to focus more of their attention a particular area of interest. This, sadly, was not available where I grew up. I often wonder at craftsman in the late 1800s, learning their trade as an apprentice. Getting their hands dirty. This model appeals to me.

I know many people whose profession is in public education but know very little of the what goes on in said profession. I fear American public schools dance to the tune of politics more than anything else, eager to pinch out every federal dollar they possibly can from Washington. Thus, on an administrative level, a student’s education is secondary to the vacillating whim of far-off bureaucrats. Creatively modifying the current system to better fit individual learning patterns then becomes a ridiculous idea to local superintendents and principals.

So, to a certain degree, people like myself are left to fend for ourselves.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

One Response to Public education and us artistic types

  1. Pingback: “…oh, how quaint - even the rabble.” « ‘Bout What I Sees

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