The Value of Trauma:
The Power of the Theoretical ‘Selfie,’ Pt 6
February 4, 2013
Oof… Who among liberal arts educators, particularly those of us who are art historians, didn’t feel the blow on Sunday? The playing field wasn’t a multi-million-dollar affair, but a flea-flicker toss of a comment made by our President. He offhandedly observed that machinists face better future prospects than art historians.  While letter writing and emailing may be a first step towards addressing our value as educators and students, we must also use the comment as a pass taking us toward the goal line of self-evaluation. As liberal arts educators and students, we are facing a difficult battle, which is precisely why it is important to evaluate the efficacy of learning and our place as the shapers of our own curriculum.
What is the outcome of narrative place-based curriculum, and why is it essential to our survival? By creating a place-based curriculum constructed in part from our own narratives, the key concepts students and instructors encounter transcend not just classroom concepts learned to meet a specific set of academic Standards or Outcomes. These guidelines, incorporated into narrative place-based education become more than concepts drawn from a text and applied to a specific place. They become enduring lessons integrated into one’s own life-long learning processes.
Throughout this crucial step toward understanding key concepts, students, as Dewhurst (2010) suggests, become critical participants who “construct knowledge, critically analyze…and take action in the world (p. 8). They become active members of their educational and local communities, participating in “collaborative problem-posing” critical analysis (p. 9). By incorporating narrative into the learning process, students and instructors personalize their sense of space, potentially engaging in learning that “is created with an express intension to challenge and change conditions of inequality or injustice” (p. 9). All members of academia become actively engaged in shaping their own space, thereby constructively creating their global impact in the world.
Dewhurst notes that critical learning “is not simply a meandering inquiry into the play of light or color across a page, but an inquiry motivated by a specific, purposeful desire to impact structures of injustice,” those restrictive hegemonic systems which have previously dictated interpretation of space (p. 9). Susan Cahan and Zoya Kocur (2010) add that conventional approaches to key concepts, those contained within the potentially restrictive measures of Standards or Outcomes, “reduce cultural artifact to empty forms devoid of historical or social significance” (p. 7). Merely applying key concepts to one’s local community would leave students with a vacuous approach to place, a “superficiality [that] is apparent to students, who rightly question why they should care about issues that appear to be fabricated simply for the purpose of classroom study” (p. 7). Rather than restrict students to mere analysis that, as Cahan and Kocur note, “tend to subsume [learned concepts] from every culture and context under narrow formal or technical concerns, which are themselves derived from European modernist aesthetic frameworks,” students, by creating their own interpretive narrative of place begin to shape the space that they inhabit, making both learning and space an integral part of their own lives (p. 7). After immersing themselves in the culture that shapes their landscapes, students will then take the next step and begin to shape their own space.
Cahan and Kocur predict that students who create their own sense of space within place will challenge “monolithic and homogenous views of history in the name of diverse, multiple, and heterogeneous perspectives” (p. 9). Students will reject “abstract, general and universal pronouncements in light of concrete, specific, and particular realities” (p. 9). Dewhurst adds that learning from a critical perspective requires students “to critically reflect on the purposes of their [education] and to match those with appropriate…tools, materials, and techniques” (p. 9). By incorporating both place and self into their learning processes, students and instructors alike transcend mere study of diverse cultures. They also begin shaping their own local places by appropriating their learning processes into their shared space.
Let’s return for a moment to the place-based education I referred to in my last blog (https://saic.digication.com/Summer_of_Discontent/Theoretical_Selfie_Pt_5). A student is thrust into a discomforting place, which from her own experiences may be alienating, frightening, intimidating, especially if she is from a rural area. Although since Baudelaire, Modernists have been fascinated with city as a landscape of hegemony, for this individual student the city as site of place-based learning is foreign and threatening. She is at risk of being subsumed by her surroundings. While this may pique a traumatic outpouring of creative energy, because she may not be able to incorporate self into this unfamiliar place, she is at risk of feeling helplessly overwhelmed by her surroundings. As a non-self-actualized learner, the best she may do is trudge through the exercises with a sense of despair, an act of learning that may lead to cynicism not just within the classroom but within her own life.
Admittedly, the city may be an overpowering place, and any daily commuter understands and recognizes the protective devices one adopts to adapt. Commuters, pressed physically against other commuters in positions normally associated with the most ultimately intimate acts, rarely make eye contact, rarely show emotions and lose themselves in their own electronic devices or distracting mediums of any sort, including intently staring at advertisements lining the train. Any means to avoid the intimacy which humans crave.
Getting Home Safely
Thrusting a young student, or even at times a seasoned instructor, into this type of potentially traumatic learning environment is a bit like thrusting a commuter onto a crowded train: it necessitates self-protecting modes of survival rather than encouraging self-actualized learning. Allowing the student to step slowly toward a specific Post-modern perspective of the trauma of hegemonic space may be a more effective approach to place-based curriculum. If she is able to slowly assess the place by finding her own space, choosing a place within her community in which she may feel more comfortable by allowing her to explore realms outside of the confining place dictated by a specific assignment, she will be more likely to develop a sense of self-actualization.
Ganesh (2010) calls for “a student-centered model,” a curriculum “which draws on lived experience and links the richness of that experience to curricular material” (p. 22). By incorporating personal narrative and personal experience into the learning process, according to Ganesh, students will engage in “an ongoing examination of many categories we may take for granted—such as ‘American,’ ‘foreign,’ and ‘non-Western’,” those hegemonic norms that potentially daily shape who we perceive ourselves to be (p. 22). By creating student-centered curriculum built upon both narrative and place, students and educators critically engage in shaping global perspectives on a local level.
Yes, Mr. President, a Liberal Arts education does have value, although an accountant may not be able to measure it. And you yourself, as we all know from Nelson Mandela’s funeral, indulge in a ‘Selfie’ now and then. Why shouldn’t we value a student’s ability to engage in the same act of self-actualization, of positioning oneself within one’s own learning, indulging in an artistically-drawn theoretical ‘Selfie’? An education based within the liberal arts is an introduction to critical, life-long learning. Furthermore, by incorporating narrative into place-based curriculum, we learn the true value of liberal arts. It isn’t just about measurable Standards or Outcomes. Nor is it just about place. It is finding oneself within one’s own actualized space.
 For a well-written response to Obama’s statement, see http://the-toast.net/2014/02/04/in-defense-of-art-history/