Systemic Change in a Pointillist World – Questions from GIA 2013

I approached the 2013 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference as an opportunity to revisit my roots while stepping out of my comfort zone. I grew up in the Philadelphia area and my first job out of graduate school was in grantmaking. Since then I have been living and breathing arts education. I arrived last week happy to be “home” and eager to take a break from edutalk. I wanted to sit back and revel in topics I know little about.

Wouldn’t you know it? Of the nearly ten pages of notes I wrote over those three days, almost half are about public education.

So much for that break.

I did go to a few sessions specific to education: an update on GIA’s Arts Education Funders Coalition’s advocacy efforts, for example, and a session about the Hive Learning Network‘s support for digital learning. Most, however, didn’t explicitly have much to do with K-12 classrooms. One described a multi-city performance festival. Another shared lessons learned from one foundation’s attempt to coax a bit of “ridiculousness” from its grantees. They were fascinating in their own right, but as I listened I kept writing vague questions to myself about “evolution,” “innovation,” and “the system.” Something was nagging at me, and I didn’t know what it was.

Then Ethan Zuckerman made my head explode.

Mr. Zuckerman’s keynote on day two of the conference was the perfect cerebral counterbalance to the soul-stirring meditations provided by Quiara Alegria Hudes and Nikky Finney on days one and three. (Kudos to GIA for lining up not one, not two, but three exemplary plenary speakers for this gathering.) He talked about how digital media is changing our interactions with one another, changing what it means to be an engaged and globally-minded citizen, and changing how we access and filter the information and opinions that shape our understanding of the world. The upcoming generations of “digital natives,” he said, are raised with a “pointillist” worldview. They seek and expect constant participation and engagement in the causes they think affect their social circles. They want immediate impact. They risk falling into an echo chamber of ideas that support their existing conception of the world. They are suspicious of institutions. They engage via social connections, not broad issues. To them, “the idea that [their] job as a 20-something is to read the newspaper every day and every two years elect someone to represent [them] is bullshit.”

I don’t have a Facebook account but I don’t live in a cave. The idea that the Internet and social media are changing how we consume information isn’t new to me. However, Zuckerman hammered home both the speed and uncertainty with which the world is shifting beneath our feet. We can’t yet judge whether these changes are for good or ill, but must be flexible in our understanding of what things like “citizenry” and “creativity” mean. Creativity, according to Zuckerman, isn’t just about creation. It’s about settling into a space between concepts, actively seeking divergent points of view, drawing connections between people and disciplines that seem to have nothing to do with one another, indulging in an “import-export business” of ideas, and resisting the temptation to lapse into homophily.

For the rest of the conference, everything I heard and discussed was about “the space between.” I went to an off-site session at Drexel University, where fashion majors work alongside engineering majors to create wearable pieces of circuitry, and students in a music and technology engineering lab stay up to the wee hours figuring out how to program robots to play drums for a tongue-in-cheek video rendition of  ”Come Together.” As one of the presenters quipped, showing us a visual map of men and women with “hybrid competencies” working between disciplines, “the tree of knowledge has been cut down and replaced by a network.”

It was pretty darn cool.

It was also clarified my vague musings about “evolution” and “the system.” In arts education we seek “systemic change,” trying to determine the structures we must put in place so all students have equal access to studying visual art, dance, etc. Those structures are based on our own understanding of the artistic disciplines and our experiences with “the system.” In light of what Zuckerman described, however, they seem, well, rigid. To give one example, our advocacy efforts often make clear that “the arts” refer to four specific disciplines – visual art, dance, drama, and music. (With the advent of new national core arts standards, a fifth discipline, media arts, is getting its due, though the fact the word “digital” is missing may be testament to just how far our efforts lag behind student experience.) We do this because our field is a “big tent” and we want to be sure no one is left out (unless, like both our plenary speakers on days one and three, you happen to work in the literary arts). So we are careful to call those four-or-five disciplines out as separate-but-equal, and maintain that students should have high-quality learning experiences in each.

Those decisions make sense to us. But do they make sense to our students? Do they align with their “pointillist” worldview?  Will they be relevant in 2020? Will they be relevant in 2016? How on earth do we craft policies that have the “teeth” to get to issues of equity, but not the rigidity that will render them obsolete? How do we take a “systemic” view to support students with a “pointillist” lens? What if a “pointillist” generation doesn’t want or care about four-or-five separate artistic disciplines? What if our desire for policies and definitions that reflect how we think about our work are getting in our way of supporting what they need?

Uncomfortable thoughts, but not unwelcome. I came to Philadelphia thinking I would lend a newcomer’s perspective on foreign topics. I left with those foreign topics challenging my longstanding perspective. The “space between” is interesting indeed.