Learning at Harvard – Making Pottery & Watching Plants Grow

Consciousness is not a thing, but a process William James.

Process is the new catch word: Art is a process, thinking is a process, learning is a process, knowledge is a process… Life is a process.

So what better way to learn, or acquire knowledge by doing? This is precisely the idea behind a new initiative at Harvard to raise its arts education up to its standards for sciences and humanities. One of the results is Arts@29Gardens,   

A new space intended to support and enable creativity, collaboration, experimentation and art-making amongst faculty, students and visiting artists.They come together to make art that enhances, embodies, and re-imagines learning. 

For example anthropology professor Matthew Liebmann taught a course here, Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods and Reasoning, in collaboration with the Office for the Arts in  which the undergraduates made and designed pottery using traditional materials and techniques, giving them real insight into how ancient people lived – clay being a most important record of ancient cultures. He recounted some students ended up taking on pottery as a study on their own. See here the report from Harvard Gazette.

Meanwhile, on the first floor of Arts @ 29 Garden, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Elena Kramer sat in front of a computer monitor as a plant moved fluidly, almost balletlike, on a large screen. Kramer helped students of OEB 52, “Biology of Plants,” create stop-motion videos and films — which were being shown in the nearby screening room to illustrate how plants are continually in motion, evolving. These two-dimensional, dynamic displays, even more than scientific texts, viscerally communicate the dynamic processes of plant life, according to Kramer.

All of this is the result of Harvard president Drew Faust’s 2008 initiative

… to make the arts an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge. (my italics) 

With learning in recent years becoming a visible word on museum websites, Harvard’s move is certainly interesting. Not to mention also the sudden popularity of action art and performance art, even video art… among major museums (MoMA included) – process and participation are the key.

There are also changes on the admissions front. In an article in Harvard Magazine, Writers and Artists at Harvard – How to welcome and nurture the poets and painters of the future, Helen Vendler, the  poetry critic who is on Harvard’s undergraduate admissions committee has wondered how TS Eliot would have fared if applying to Harvard. She argued that most creative people in the arts tend to be introverts, and probably would not have been leaders in high school, or otherwise performed community service projects and the like. And Harvard would have missed out on the future poets and painters who would make our culture moments memorable. She went on:

The cultural resonance of the characters of Greek epic and tragedy—Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone—and the crises of consciousness they embody—have been felt long after the culture that gave them birth has disappeared… Nobody would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not sung it, or Guernica if Picasso had not painted it… We would know less of New England without Emily Dickinson’s “seeing New Englandly,” as she put it.

This is for sure a great shot in the arm for the arts to be taken seriously as a process and a discipline – and, fittingly  for Harvard, William James went there, as did TS Eliot. *


*  However Emily Dickinson did not. She attended Mount Holyoke, the first woman’s college in the US, established 175 years ago in 1837, (class of 1849). The liberal arts  college is renowned for its rigorous science curriculum. Its astronomy department is a team member of NASA’s  Mars Rover Curiosity launched in 2012.





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