Written by Carrie Heflin
Twenty five thousand years ago our rapidly-evolving ancestors discovered a network of caverns in the region currently known as Lascaux, France. What they did there made an indelible mark on our species and our planet.
For most of our early years, man was focused solely on our own existence. But these images on the walls of the caves at Lascaux were created by human hands. We don’t know why they were created or by whom. All we know is that, as our most ancient ancestors spent hours in the dark musty interior of the caves at Lascaux recording the world around them in a way that would preserve their thoughts and feelings for thousands of generations to come.
Today we seem to have lost sight of this earliest vision of our forefathers. As we slash budgets, we often do so at the expense of museums and their programming, art classes in schools, and extracurricular activities. Art and its history are not just some frill belonging to the upper one percent of modern society. They are an element of our most basic nature- a calling in our souls.
I am in my third year as a pre-kindergarten teacher at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center and I use my art history degree every day as part of the curriculum. I teach my children to be critical thinkers and careful observers from early on.
One of the first topics we explored at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year was Frank L. Baum’s timeless classic, The Wizard of Oz. We talked about everything Oz, from men made out of tin, to things that melt when they get wet. At the end of the unit I had two anecdotes that reaffirmed for me that the way that I implement art as an educational tool in my classroom is vital. The first was from a mother who had spent the weekend trying to design her family’s annual Christmas card with her two sons. As they sat in front of the computer trying various filters on the images, her older son became intent on using the dreaded sepia tone filter that makes everyone look like they’re in an amusement park Wild West saloon shoot. To appease him the mother clicked on the sepia option and her younger son (who is my student) immediately pointed at the screen and yelled, “Hey, it looks like we’re in Kansas!” This comment refers back to the first week we studied Oz almost a month prior when we went to the Hirshhorn Museum to look at two Wall Drawings by Sol Lewitt. One piece was in color and the other on the opposite wall was in black and white. We explored the art and how it was created and then we talked about how different color schemes make us feel and how the filmmakers in the Wizard of Oz used this concept to show viewers how Dorothy felt in Kansas.
The second comment was made during a morning circle on the letter “B.” We asked the students to think of words that started with “B” and one boy called out “beryl!” We asked him if he remembered what beryl is and he exasperatedly explained that everyone knows it’s the main ingredient in emeralds. He is four. Did you know what beryl was before you read this paragraph?
As much as I would like to tell you that they are, my students are not all geniuses. They are not smarter because their parents read to them in utero or played Baby Einstein movies in their nurseries. They are able to process and retain knowledge because they have learned critical thinking skills the likes of which I was still honing in high school. They answer open-ended questions with thoughtfulness and clarity that floors me on a daily basis and they remember what they have learned and apply it to their future endeavors. These are the skills that we as educators strive to instill in our students because they are the tools to success. Being able to analyze and apply what you have learned is the only thing that makes knowledge useful.
I firmly believe that the work we do in the museums is the key to unlocking these skills at such an early age. Every day I see my students connect with art and with objects. I see their eyes light up when I tell them stories of people who felt and questioned long, long ago and who made beautiful wonderful things that we can see and explore today. I hear their questions as we wander the halls of our nation’s most expansive art collections- “Why is that so blue? Who made those statues? Is that a sculpture or a painting? Is that Hermes or Zeus?”- and I watch them implement their knowledge in their play. My students have used dress up to be French flaneurs and turned our climbing structure into a ship sailing to see Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. They can tell you who the Neanderthals were and what their favorite Shakespeare play is. They are sensitive and passionate and insatiable learners. My greatest fear is that they will leave our school and become less curious and more focused, less passionate and more dedicated to trying to memorize information and facts.
As we rang in 2014 the Smithsonian was preparing itself for budget cuts that may have required our nineteen museums to close one day a week for an indefinite period of time. One day a week, we were told, we might not be able to go see the art. While it was only one day, it felt like the beginning of something very big and very bad. When the largest and most renowned museum network in our country is forced to consider closing its doors it seems like only a matter of time before other institutions must follow suit. It didn’t end up happening, thankfully, but it did make me want to sit down and put my thoughts to paper. I didn’t write this article to protest government budget cuts.
There are already plenty of people doing that. I just hope that what I have to say can make my fellow educators stop and think about the enormity of the task before us and I want to offer a suggestion for a way to make it more manageable. Use the mistakes and triumphs of our species’ long and winding path to show your students a better way into the future. Don’t let those critical thinking skills that we worked so hard to develop be lost on a future generation of people with endless knowledge at their fingertips, because the more we depend on our gadgets for answers the less we will seek them ourselves. Instead, use the tools that you have been given- tablets, projectors, laptops, and yes, museums to encourage your students to seek out and interpret knowledge. Immerse yourselves in the passion of human creation and discovery and you will be amazed the places it will take all of you.