Stressing out our kids

Art, not drugs, saved me from the horrible trauma of my childhood. So why do we think it’s optional for our kids?
This is my grandson Jake when he was a few months old. He starts kindergarten this year. I really hope he has time to paint and draw in school.
The overall death rate in Britain and America started dropping at the turn of the last century—except for childbirth deaths. They increased, even though women were healthier overall. At odds with every other health marker, rich women were more likely to die in childbirth than poor women. Why?
For most of history, midwives attended laboring women in their homes. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that women began to be attended by doctors and to deliver infants in hospitals or private nursing homes. Since the medical profession had no understanding of sanitation, doctors inadvertently spread puerperal fever from one patient to the next. That’s when they weren’t intervening with forceps, anesthesia, caesarians, and other frequently-fatal procedures. Rich women were more likely to be on the forefront of medical care, so they suffered disproportionately.
The New Puppy, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Camden Falls Gallery.
I love math. I’m pretty good at it, and I see it as a description of the beautiful unity of the world’s design. I’m all for teaching math and science.
But to make room for math and science, we’ve cut back on art and music. And every time a public school needs to trim its sails, they start with the art department. That disregards the important role art has always played in liberal education, and all the science that tells us that art plays a critical role in developing intellect and character.
Miss Margaret, by Carol L. Douglas. She was a pretty good stress-reducer.
According to Athena Health, the percentage of pediatric patients with an anxiety diagnosis more than doubled from 2013 to this year. The percentage of patients prescribed anti-anxiety drugs over that time increased by a factor of six.
My sister and brother died when I was a child, in two separate, brutal accidents. There were no anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds back then. Luckily for me, I had art, so here I still am.
A recent study from Drexel University shows that creating art significantly lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Competence and the difficulty of the task had no significant effect on the results, but younger participants had a more consistent positive effect.
White Sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas, available.
I’ve written about brain growth in kids from doing art, doodling and executive function, neuroplasticity, and many other subjects. Training in drawing is associated with an increase in brain gray matter and changes in the prefrontal cortex. Making art improves the functional connectivity between cortices. Even passive engagement with art helps brain function.
Can anyone cite similar positive outcomes from their school’s football program?
Someday (I hope), we will classify the educational bureaucrats who dismiss art education with the well-meaning, misguided doctors who killed so many women in childbirth. But until then, we need to keep the pressure on to restore art to its proper place in western education. And parents, by all means, keep your kids drawing.

You can’t draw a straight line, and other falsehoods

“I’m not talented” is the most pernicious lie in the world. Science is slowly disproving it.
Under a milky sky (Hare Bay, Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. It’s exactly what today’s sky looks like.

Like Thomas Edison, I firmly believe that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I have zero tolerance for the 18th century idea of the Cult of Genius or for Sigmund Freud‘s theories of poetic madness.

These ideas stripped rationality from the creation of art and the art market. They made it inevitable that art and music would be considered non-essential, meaning we could cut them from our schools. They removed the joy of making art from the everyday experiences of ordinary people. Early in our educations, some of us are labeled ‘talented’ and the rest are encouraged to do something else. That’s rigid and it limits everyone, artist and non-artist alike. 
Creativity is the one of the defining characteristics of mankind, after all, and it should flow through everything we do. That’s especially important in our post-industrial society, where making stuff—canning, farming, woodworking, sewing, etc.—is now unnecessary.
Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Drawing takes many forms, and all of them are helpful to the human mind.
Science is slowly returning us to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of art as part of the toolkit of the rational man. Drawing is not just a tool to communicate; it’s a tool to classify and learn.
Sadly, educators seem to be the last ones on board with this idea. Here’s another study which says what I told my kids’ principals in vain: if you want my son to learn, let him doodle it. Don’t just try to cram it into his brain.
The researchers in this recent study figure that drawing gives your brain different ways to engage with new material—imagining it, rendering it, and looking at your visual record. All those steps encode it in your memory. I’d add one more thing—doodling is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
My late friend and student Gwendolyn Linn attracted a flock of kids eager to learn.
Adults can leave a work environment that discourages doodling. Kids aren’t so lucky.
Many of us were riveted by last week’s story of 40,000-year-old figurative cave drawings found in Borneo. “It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Paleolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world,” wrote co-researcher Adam Brumm.
It actually means that scientists have only found these drawings in Europe and Indonesia. Not every cave has conditions to preserve art, of course. But reason tells us that if there’s cave art in two such distant places, it was probably practiced worldwide by paleolithic man.
There’s a connection between these two stories, and it comes from my pal, artist Diane Leifheit.
Adult students getting fresh air and intellectual exercise last summer near Spruce Head. We won’t be so fortunate today; it’s raining.
“When someone says, ‘Oh I can’t draw,’ I say, ‘We have been making art for thousands of years. It is in our DNA. We just have to scratch the surface to find it,’” she said.
Next time you tell me you aren’t talented, remember that. As for drawing straight lines, I carry a straight-edge in my painting kit. Works every time.

The scrap-heap of civilization

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806). Dismissed at the time, it is now considered one of the most insightful political portraits ever painted.
A-Levels are our British cousins’ version of a high-school concentration. It’s a wide and varied list, including Punjabi and Classical Greek, among many other subjects. We Americans, accustomed to readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic being our fundamental choices in high school, have no similar experience. Kids sit for two exams over two years in each subject. When they’re done, their proficiencies are part of the mysterious equation that gets them into college or university.
In 2018, the A-Level in Art History will be tossed on the ashcan, offered no more. This decision was, inscrutably, part of a Conservative initiative to modernize the tests. In part, the decision was blamed on a lack of qualified teachers. Clearly, there is some fundamental difference between the British educational economy and ours, because I know a plethora of adjunct professors here who would leap at the opportunity for a gig paying an actual living wage.
Art history is the visual record of the thoughts and values of our ancestors, and it ought to be taught side-by-side with political history. For example, if a class were studying the French and American Revolutions, a few weeks perusing the catalog to Citizens and Kings would be eye-opening. The radical change in social values that drove revolution is laid out in perfect clarity. These ideas are stunning and very pertinent to the Current Crisis.
Instead, we study things like the Siege of Quebec. Yawn.
Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.

Portrait of Louis-François Bertin (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1832). Ingres recorded so much more than just fabric.
Art history is nuanced. It cannot be easily reduced to a Scantron exam. It requires analysis, interpretation, prodigious memorization, and excellent writing skills. You can’t learn it without accidentally learning language, theology, history, and economics. To grade such a subject, a teacher must read (and understand) complex essays. That simply isn’t feasible in the modern age of productivity and quantification, so it is being sacrificed to Progress by our British cousins. And it doesn’t get the respect it deserves here, either.
Louise de Broglie, Countess d'Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Is she a mere noblewoman, or more?

Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville. (Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1845). Who, actually, is this woman?
However, there’s good news in that. While companies like Pearson make billions commodifying our Three Rs, there’s no real money to be made in art history. That makes it a wide-open subject for the self-taught man. Janson’s History of Art is in its eighth edition, and will set back a college freshman several hundred dollars (for shame). However, the sixth edition can be had for less than $20. Art history really hasn’t changed a bit since it was published in 2001.
Go ahead, be a subversive: buy it and read it. Nobody really owns the right to our shared history and knowledge, no matter how hard corporations try to corner the market.

Smart kids

“The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.”
When I came across that in a recent Boston Globe pieceon educating gifted kids, I had to laugh. Having once been the smartest kid in my public school class, I was anything but a cheap problem to fix; in fact, my parents ended up sending me to a private school to finish high school. I’m a great example of high intellect swamped by low expectations.
Fast-forward a generation to my own kids’ educations. You would think it would be better, but it’s not. Gifted and talented programs—all the rage before No Child Left Behind—have (if they still exist at all) become shock troops in the military boarding school approach to education we’ve adopted. More seat work, more homework, no time for things like art and music.
Busy work is the bane of the bright child’s existence. It teaches him to blow off his homework and rely on test-taking skills to get by. Moreover, it ignores developing the synthetic, intuitive parts of his brain, which are developedby studying art and music, and, yes, by daydreaming.
I have a friend who’s a classicist, living in penury as an adjunct professor. I’ve often thought that our school district should send three kids to her and pay her the roughly $65,000 it gets for educating them for a year. After four years, they would know history, music, the arts, Greek and Latin.
And before you tell me that’s not enough, America was built by people with exactly that education.

Message me if you want information about next year’s classes and workshops.