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Some Basic Considerations Affecting Success in Teaching Art

by William H. Kilpatrick - 1931

IT IS a pleasure to meet with you this afternoon, and I was about to say, to discuss the topic as announced.1 When, however, I began to study for writing on the topic I found I had forgotten its history and I wondered exactly what it meant. Then I remembered that I had made it up to mean anything that I should wish it to mean when I had come to discuss it.

IT IS a pleasure to meet with you this afternoon, and I was about to say, to discuss the topic as announced.1 When, however, I began to study for writing on the topic I found I had forgotten its history and I wondered exactly what it meant. Then I remembered that I had made it up to mean anything that I should wish it to mean when I had come to discuss it.

Mark Twain said in a cynical moment—"When in doubt tell the truth." I am going to tell the truth, at least in one part of this paper where I am in considerable doubt. I know that I do not know how to tell you to teach the arts. I shall tell you some things that I think, and I shall perhaps raise some questions where I am in essential doubt.

As I look at you and ask you what you conceive your tasks to be I wonder if it could be put under these heads?

First of all, to develop or aid or build or encourage (whatever word is best to be used) the power and disposition to create.

Second, to teach an appropriate technique.

Third, to build or develop (again using the appropriate word) good taste in art, appreciation of art. When I use the words "good taste" I begin to wonder whether I am writing myself down in the eyes of some of you as Victorian or old-fashioned. If so, I do it deliberately.

I ask you then to consider with me these several lines of effort. I shall say most about the first, because before we get through, the others will somehow have been largely taken care of.

The first question: Is this power to create innate or is it acquired? I think we do not know. At any rate, I know I do not know. I suspect that within limits, it is innate, but I am fairly sure that whatever may be fixed innately, the development that takes place is acquired under cultivation, I am myself fairly convinced that it is a development that is acquired under cultivation. I am myself fairly convinced that whatever may be innate, the particular line that anyone is likely to take is very largely a matter of his environment and encouragement, although not entirely.

At any rate, my first advice to you, as regards this question of whether this power is innate or acquired, is to act on the hypothesis that there is much more in any child than we know how to get out and get going. Whether it is innate, or whether it is acquisition, or how much acquisition or how much innate, I do not know, but I am fully convinced that almost nobody ever reaches the limit of his ability.

Many people seem to have reached the limits of their ability but I am more and more inclined to believe that there is much more ahead than most of us succeed in getting out of our pupils or students. In particular, I wish to reject all notions of fatalism in connection with the teaching of our pupils. I am quite willing to admit that there are limitations placed by nature, but what will be done with those limitations, the direction in which they will go, the particular content that will be found—all of those things depend upon the environment, stimulation, cultivation, opportunity, and encouragement.

So I am but repeating the same words when I say again that whatever is given innately in the way of power is not sufficient unto itself.

There has been a school of psychology that seemed to wish to make us believe that if a person had ability, the ability would come out in spite of everything. Personally, I do not believe it. I am very fully convinced it is not true of the vast majority of people. There may be some cases where the ability, innate ability, was so outstanding that almost nothing could have kept it back. But by and large, the contrary is true.

Creative work, from the fact that it is creative, always has more or less of a mystery about it to anyone who did not do the creating, and very frequently to the one who did. But even if there is this mysterious element in creation it is never wholly mysterious.

It is not remarkable that Beethoven should have written his music for the instruments that he did write it for rather than for the instruments that are used in central Africa. It is not remarkable that whatever nature gives manifests itself along lines that have already been under cultivation. In other words, we are dealing here, as the biologist would say, with the unity of organism and environment. The organism, apart from the environment, cannot be. It takes the organism and the environment together to make the one thing, and this, I think, is just as true in the realm of art as anywhere else. Then whatever power your children have, however little or however great, that power needs encouragement, it needs stimulation, and the stimulation must come from somewhere and that somewhere cannot be from within. I am not saying there may not be yearnings within, but the stimulation must come somewhere from without.

The organism and environment must build together. There must be something in the environment that appeals to the organism in order that the organism may react. There must be stimulation of some sort to call out, to call into play—to call first into action and then to give direction to the action.

I am saying there must be encouragement and stimulation on the one hand, and there must be opportunity on the other hand. I greatly suspect, if we are going to do the best by our children, that there must be variety of stimulation and not one single type. It is quite possible that the variety should not be very great at the beginning, but I was very much struck two or three years ago when Mrs. Ensor of Great Britain brought to this country an exhibit of free art work from some of the more progressive schools of Europe. When you looked at the pictures from one school, although it was supposed to be perfectly free art and each child was doing what he himself devised, it was perfectly clear that the pictures from one school were all alike, and also all different from those from any other school, which in turn were all alike. You could go around the room—each group all alike and all different from the others. This was an exhibit that professed to show how, if you give childhood a chance, it will show itself creatively.

I have said that innate power is not sufficient unto itself. There is needed encouragement and a variety of stimulation and there is also, I think, needed criticism—not too exacting and not too dogmatic. It is easy for the teacher to be so exacting and so dogmatic that whatever spontaneity the child may possess is dried up in the acceptance of the teacher's criteria.

We have got to cherish the child and neither our stimulation nor our criticism should be the kind to produce a dull conformity. Rather must it be the kind to help build spontaneity and fruitfulness. I grant you it is much easier said than done and I am therefore leaving you to do it.

As for criteria, what you have got to do is to help the child as he grows older to build these for himself—not simply take your criteria, but build criteria for himself; and if you are going to make any great artists, you must see that these children build their criteria in a way that allows them to grow as their insight grows. Again is this easier said than done, but if you are going to preserve the individuality of your pupils, you must bring your criticism and your suggestions out in a way to help the child to build for himself growing criteria, growing standards so that he increasingly takes over the building of his own standards.

We must then respect the personality of the child and we must work for new things from him. We may not get the new things, we certainly shall not get good new things every time, but we must work in season and out to get as much of the personality of the child to express itself as we can.

I should like to ask a question: Where does creation show itself? I am going to take a position here that is opposed to the common run of thinking. So far as I know, it is a position seldom taught in books, but one that I am myself convinced of and quite ready to defend in detail before any group, I think.

I want to say that creation is found in any and all learning, where-ever learning is found. This is an extension of the notion of creation, but I wish to insist upon it. Wherever there is any instance of learning, there is in some measure an active creation taking place. Saying it a little differently, wherever an individual now has a way of reacting which a little while ago he did not have, I wish to say that an act of creation has intervened. This as I warned you is different from the common notion.

Any instance of learning, in my judgment, includes these two elements—a creative element and a fixing element—a creative element whereby and wherein the individual now has what he before-times did not have—a certain way of behaving. If he gets this way of behaving, so that it abides with him, then what I am calling the fixing element is present. So I should like to defend the proposition that every instance of learning includes the two elements—a creative element and a fixing element.

In some cases the creative element is so pronounced and so outstanding that we do not think much about the fixing element In some other cases, the fixing element is so predominant that we think very little about the creative, but both are present. Let us illustrate this because something turns upon it.

Suppose a child learns, for instance, not to touch a hot stove. He touches it once, burns his finger and learns not to touch a hot stove again. You may say there is no creation in that. How is it with a moth? Have you seen a moth fly to a candle and burn its wings? Does the moth learn not to fly to the candle again? No. It flies back to the candle again. What is the difference? The child has "sense" enough to learn and the moth has not "sense" enough to learn. The child can create a new way of looking at the stove; the moth cannot create a new way of looking at the candle. The child has creative power in that respect and the moth does not have it.

Take another case: A child of a certain age will understand that one dime will buy just as much as two nickels in spite of the fact that a dime is smaller than either of the two nickels. But that same child when he was younger, could not understand it. He could not get it into his head. Between the time he could not get it and the time now that he can get it—somewhere in between—he grew into that state of intelligence whereby he could learn it. He could create this new way of thinking about nickels and dimes which beforetimes he could not create. Again an instance where actual creation has taken place.

Now take a case of learning under direction, where we tell a child how to do a certain thing. It is of course clear that the learning without our help is a greater instance of creation, but when we tell him how to do it he still has something to do. If you don't believe it, let somebody tell you how to take a golf ball and club and drive the ball 200 yards. They can tell you how to do it, but you don't just do it. You have to create that stroke.

It is the same way with a stroke in tennis. You cannot just decide that you will do it yourself. You will not do it in this fashion. You have got to create the stroke. After you have been told how to do it, there is still something that you have got to do and some people don't have it in them to do it.

The same thing holds of following directions. If somebody tells you how to go to this room 60 that we heard about a moment ago or you ask downstairs how to find the grand ballroom, you will be told to do certain things, but a set of directions can become so complicated that ordinary people cannot follow them. There is a degree beyond which the average capacity does not go, which is another way of saying that it is still an act of creation when you follow directions.

Let us next think of technique. This is a kind of revolutionary thing that I am saying, at least revolutionary in my circle of thinking. I am not so sure about yours. First of all, technique is a learning. You have to learn technique. We will agree to that. Then if I am right in what I have just said, technique is a creation, and then the boundary line between creation as ordinarily understood and technique has passed away, so that though you speak of creation and technique as if they were opposed to each other, they are not. They stand, perhaps, at different places on the scale, but they are both instances of creation and you don't have much trouble in finding some children who cannot create, or who apparently cannot create enough to learn the technique. Others get it easily. In many instances, the great artist has shown his power by creating a new technique as well as by devising a new conception. We will come back to that in a moment.

Now let us ask the question: Can the gifted alone create? I say no. Before man was man, the first instance of learning took place, far down in the life of the amoeba. Creation has ever been present in the world from eons before man was man. So we have no right at all, as I see it, to say that here are a few people who stand at the upper end of the human line and they are the only ones who can create. They may be the only ones who can create great creations, but not the only ones who can create. Every one of you, every child that you have, in my opinion, is capable of creation, and in fact does create every day. Let me take a very simple instance.

When you cross Broadway, having first looked up and down to see whether you can get across with your life, and have decided that these motor cars which you never saw before will not hit you before you can get halfway across, and these others won't get you before you can get the remaining way across, you are facing a new situation in life. You have had something like it before, but not this exact situation. You have to create the answer to that problem. I think a great deal depends upon accepting that proposition. It is the same way with driving a motor car. This may seem to be a very common everyday affair. So far as we can tell, almost no one has so little sense that he cannot drive a motor car, and yet every time you face a new situation in that motor car, you have to solve a new problem. You have to create the answer where none existed before because that situation never existed before.

Now if it is so that everyone can create and everyone does create every day, the problem is to capitalize this power. We do not know at the beginning of the year which one of our children is going to be the one to stand out in the end. We do know that in general when any person is a great artist he comes out of a situation where there were many others nearly as great. In other words, greatness arises from the group. Even though it may be individual, still it arises from the group. We wish, therefore, to encourage as many people to try in order that the really great ones may have the surroundings and encouragements and the criticism and stimulation that will make them come forth. You can go back to the days of Greece and find the same thing was true.

I am speaking of capitalizing this power to make life mean more. May I ask you to consider this? Each one of our children should increasingly make his own life better by putting creation and appreciation to work actually in life along these lines.

I am thinking especially of women now, but it holds just as true with men.

Every woman creates the ensemble that she wears. She cannot simply copy it. Some do try, but it is impossible to copy and even if one does try, then one must decide which dress to copy. So that each person does create in that sense what he or she will wear. I think the greatest place where creative art can be put to work the country over is in dress.

We may look more closely. We know that each one creates his manners and he may make a fine job or a botch of it. Each person has infinite opportunity at refinement of manners, the choice of how he will speak, the refinement of consideration for other people. And taking into consideration everything else, each one has to make out of himself what he will be. Granted the conditions—yes, but granted the conditions, what will be done with the conditions depends upon each person himself, so that each one of us is engaged in building what ought to be a unique masterpiece. We are dealing with the finest fabric imaginable, the finest stuff to work with, material which lends itself to the very finest degree of manipulation, which will show refinement beyond any other material—human personality.

What is the highest type of creation? It is just what I have said, but let us say it in terms of a masterpiece that we more usually think of. The highest type of creation is found first of all perhaps in a great conception; it is also found in the creation of standards by which to judge the conception, also perhaps in creating in some measure a new technique by which to effect the conception. And then all of these are put together in the creation of the masterpiece itself. It embodies the conception; it embodies the standards by which the conception is to be judged; it embodies the technique by which the conception was effected. The masterpiece itself, in these many respects, shows creation. But this kind of creation, I wish to insist, is perfectly continuous with all of the rest down to the simplest case of learning imaginable. You have a perfectly continuous series and scale of creation.

Do you see that in a way I am discussing the democracy of art?

Now I should like to say a word, because my time is nearly up, about happiness and creation. First of all, creation and thinking are very, very close together. There can be no creation worth talking about that does not involve thinking. In this situation, which is a new instance, if it is real thinking, again it is an instance of creation.

Now consider happiness. We have a scale of satisfactions. At the low end we have those mere bodily satisfactions. Let us take feeding. That is a word we use to apply to the lower animals. We humans do not feed, we dine. What is the difference between dining and feeding? Feeding affords the nucleus around which dining develops. But dining adds to feeding other elements—the polished board, china, linen, silver—each a work of art and each itself the creation and the choice of another creation and then again, if it is dining, there are guests and there is companionship, and conversation—not simply words—but conversation that means new thought, real wit.

Do you see, what I am saying is that the lowest type of satisfaction is that which has the least meaning in it, but as you get more and more meaning to it, you have more and more creation and you have a higher and higher type of happiness in connection with it, so that the kind we wish is that type of creative living and thinking which carries within it the seeds of further creative living and thinking—the union of many meanings into fruitful ways promising many more creations as you go along.

This, I say, is the highest type of happiness, so that I am taking the position that one who lives a happy life is one who is creating. There is more to be said than this, but there is here real possibility, the integration of meanings to a new end.

As I use the word "meaning" I do not use it in too intellectual a sense. There Is an intellectual aspect, but there is more than that. A thing of beauty, we all know, is a joy forever. It shows constantly new meanings. We take in constantly new aspects of it.

Now I come to the last point—the teaching of the arts. What does all of this mean? I repeat that I am, here, ignorant—I do not know. It is the blind leading those who know better. But there are some things which I think I can say about it.

The first thing is that learning, wherever it is found, if it is good and in the degree that it is good, learning is essentially self-building—building the self of the learner. So no element is properly learned unless it is learned by the self for a wider and greater self, unless it is integrated into the self to make it a wider and bigger and finer self.

I wish, therefore, to object strenuously to learning which is separated into meaningless elements. I wish to object strenuously to learning technique in advance of the use of technique, because you are splitting the self into pieces if you learn a technique by itself and do not have the need of it and do not see the need of it. You are not building the self; you are learning some isolated thing that may refuse to enter into the self. It is a dangerous proceeding.

Then I should like to say further that learning properly considered is building a growing self. It fits in with a continually growing self. We have the creation and the fixing. The creation adds the new element and the fixing fastens it into place so that it remains as a permanent element. Structure is built through functioning in this way. Creation and technique are but two ways of discussing the building of the self on its finer side.

The creation adds the new thought, the new vision, the new idea, the new conception. Technique is the way of fixing, embodying it so that it becomes a permanent part. It is not simply an idea; it is now an actuality built into the self.

If the learning is going on properly, the old is always being used to greet the new, to beget the new. The old is not simply learned and laid aside; the old is continually being used over and over again in such ways that we get new vision, new insight, and then we use all up to that time to embody the insights. I wish it could be thought of as a continuing process; one that keeps alive what is learned in the past, and besides connects it in new ways and puts it to work in new situations so that you have the self growing continually in all respects at the same time—the old staying in and helping the new to come in and create.

If you think of the conceptions, the meanings, why, they come as it were from the growing thought units on the inside. If you think of the technique, why, you are growing from the outside.

Let us take some other words. Purpose, from this point of view, is the child at work as a whole. Purpose means that the whole child feels himself engaged in this thing. When a child works not purposefully, only his outside is working—his hands, fingers, some of the eye perhaps, but the heart is not working. But when the child is really working purposefully, his mind, his soul, his heart—everything is at work together. The child is ready all over, so that he is working together as one whole; and if the purpose is intelligently executed, there is an end in view and there is a shaping of means intelligently with reference to that end, so that we have the whole child working intelligently toward an end, and shaping the means toward that end and being himself shaped by this process.

If you take the word "interest," that means that the child is an organism in its "environment" and that both are working harmoniously together as one whole. The child's organism-environment unity is happily at work if there is interest present.

And what does understanding mean? Understanding means that what the child is seeing for the first time is being integrated with what he has previously seen and understood; understanding means he is knitting the new with the old, to make a continuous matter of it.

Do you see that I am thinking of building a self continuously as a plant grows? A plant does not grow by having one limb up there and another over there, and after a while they become joined together. Life does not go on that way. It cannot go on that way.

How then shall we sum up this question of education in the matter of art? What we are wishing is an integration of personality looked at from the inside—a unified working whole—integrated personality from the inside—an integrated working whole. There is a free interaction between part and part, also a free interaction between self and environment as this integrated personality faces reality.

Let me say that over again! I want to get the personality integrated from within and integrated from without. Integrated from within it is a unified working whole—part fits with part and they work together. What the eye sees, the hand is ready to execute; what the brain conceives, the whole body is ready to work for. That, I am saying, is to be unified within. But an integrated personality with the environment—there must be a free and wholesome interaction so that what the environment properly demands this personality is ready to give. This personality does not refuse to face the reality out there—it looks it in the face squarely. What cannot be cured, it is willing to endure; what can be cured, it sets to work to cure. It conceives better and finer things.

Now is it clear that this integration of personality must be conceived in terms of growing and in this growing we have creation, the promise of future growth, and in this I think we have the criteria for the freedom that we are to give or seek in our teaching; the criteria for amount of direction we are to give, the criteria for the technique that we are to encourage, and how much of it, when and how. All of these things come by seeing that life necessarily involves learning, that learning is necessarily creation, and that we wish the personality to be integrated within as a whole and into the situation as a whole, so that there can be growing altogether.

1A stenographic report reprinted from Proceedings of Eastern Arts Association, April, 1929.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 32 Number 4, 1931, p. 348-358
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 7093, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 5:53:27 AM

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