A speech delivered by Mary Brigid Barrett in 2005.
Once upon a time, in the city of Pisa, a nineteen-year-old university student entered the cathedral to pray. Pisa happened to be his hometown. He was born there, in 1564, the same year Michelangelo died in Rome, the same year William Shakespeare was born in England. The young man standing in the Cathedral’s baptistery was short in stature, with hair the same color as the shape his physical build most resembled – a brick.
His father, Vincenzo, a gifted musician, was both a practitioner and a theorist. Vincenzo thought the dominating church music of the time stale and lifeless. He found inspiration, not in religious chants or Renaissance madrigals, but in Greek poetry and myth. And not only did he have the audacity to think that pagan influences could revitalize the music of the Church, he had the courage to act on his beliefs. Actively experimenting, he created a new music which would one day culminate in what we now know as classic Italian opera. Vincenzo told his son, “It appears to me that those who rely simply on the weight of authority to prove any assertion, without searching out the arguments to support it, act absurdly. I wish to question freely and answer freely without any source of adulation. That well becomes any who are sincere in the search for truth.”
As a boy, the young man had displayed precocity in a variety of disciplines. He could play the lute like a professional. His drawings and paintings were skillfully rendered. He exhibited a marked aptitude for writing. His mathematical abilities were extraordinary. But as the eldest son in a large family struggling to retain their middle class station, he was expected to help with the financial support of his sisters and brothers. So his father committed him to the study of medicine, for it was more lucrative than the other professions.
In the cathedral, bored, or simply distracted from his prayers, the young man intently watched the swinging of an alter lamp. By checking the intervals of the swing of the lamp with his own pulse, he observed that no matter how wide the lamp’s pass, it seemed that it took the same time for the lamp to swing from one end to the other. Under the cathedral’s soaring arches, this young man discovered what scientists would one day term the “isochronism” – that the time of a pendulum’s swing varies not with the width of a swing but with the length of the pendulum. This realization, drawn from his reflective observation of an everyday occurrence, an occurrence that every member of his community had experienced hundreds of times, excited him both intellectually and emotionally. His intense feelings enticed him away from medical studies and, defying his father, he began his lifelong pursuit of physics and mathematics.
The young man continued on his own course, challenging accepted knowledge and authority. Due to a lack of funding, he withdrew from the University of Pisa before graduation. He began teaching himself – with great success – for at the age of twenty-five he was asked to return to the University as a professor of mathematics. While there he discovered the law of falling objects, that gravity pulls all bodies to earth at the same rate of acceleration regardless of weight. This discovery angered the majority of the Pisa faculty – traditional followers of Aristotle believed that heavy bodies fall faster than lighter ones – and his colleagues forced him to resign from the University. His life was evidence of what the twentieth century icon of science, Albert Einstein, often stated, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
Pisa’s loss was Padua’s gain. The young man was asked to teach at the University of Padua, which he did for eighteen years, becoming renowned as the greatest experimental physicist in the world, attracting students from all corners of the European continent. And it was not long before this man, Galileo Galilei, now grown to middle age, dared to disturb the universe again.
Galileo’s intellectual persecution and censorship at the hands of the Church have become legend. It is amazing today to think it all started with a simple telescope. Galileo did not invent the telescope; he merely improved the telescope’s capabilities. He also figured out its practical applications in warfare, navigation, and trade, and then successfully marketed the telescopes he built. What Galileo did, which no one else thought to do, was to impulsively turn the telescope away from the land and sea, and look up into the sky and stars. He, a mere human, examined Heaven. He looked, and thought, and questioned, and looked some more, until he saw things no one had ever seen before. And then he committed the sin that was unforgivable, the sin that challenged the most powerful authority of the time, the Church of Rome; he told other people what he saw and thought and, worse, he wrote about it. And he wrote not in Latin, the language of scholars, but in clear, colloquial Italian so that anyone who could read had access to his thoughts.
Simply put, Galileo’s ideas challenged the prevailing view of the universe, confirming Copernicus’s theory that the earth and planets revolve around the sun. It is hard for us, who have witnessed Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, to understand why Galileo’s ideas caused so much controversy. But it shouldn’t. When the declared source of all knowledge and truth is only found in a spiritual god, or in temporal gods, in literal interpretations of sacred texts and in traditional social laws, it makes the human representatives of that authority source ever more powerful. And when orthodox knowledge and truth are challenged by the careful observations and insightful thinking of a courageous individual – an individual who can effectively communicate his or her conclusions to the literate world – the arbitrators of that power source will always attempt to silence and condemn the individual. Often it is not the information or insights that challenge, but rather the ultimate loss of control that most frightens the established power structures.
After the Church’s Tribunal inquisition, Galileo was imprisoned. The imprisonment limited his freedom, but not his intellectual life. He refused to allow the condemnation from the church he so loved to diminish his spirit, and he continued to wonder, question, observe, and write until the day he died.
In the middle of the 19th century, a shy boy grew into manhood in the warm southern light of Aix-en-Provence, France. His father wanted him to become a banker and insisted that he follow a traditional course of study. But the young man had his own passions. He wrote poetry in secret and, in addition to his parochial education, studied drawing and painting at the art school in his village, for he desperately wanted to become a painter. He dreamed of going to Paris to study at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, the most famous school of art in the world. He dreamed of one day exhibiting his paintings at the annual Salon, the state-sponsored exhibition, where in one night an artist could gain international recognition and secure financial patronage. And he dreamed, as did every artist, of one day being awarded the Prix de Rome, the highest honor an artist could achieve in France and the world. To be a member of the elite “Prix de Rome” club, to join highly esteemed artists Michel-Martin Drolling, Joseph-Desire Court, Jean-Jacques Henner, Charles Selleir, Paul Baudry, Luc-Olivier Merson, and Ernest Hebert – was the height of his yearnings.
Escaping paternal constraints and law school, the young man finally did get to Paris, joining up with his good friend Emile Zola, but his application to the Ecole de Beaux-Arts was rejected. Officials said his drawings were rough, that he lacked in technical skills, that he had no sense of color. His paintings were continually rejected by the official Salon. In spite of this avalanche of rejection he persevered, seeking out mentors and colleagues, honing his skills, refining his observations, experimenting with various mediums, with color, shape, form, and design – all of which he did working in relative obscurity. He painted landscapes – outside like the Impressionists – examining the effects of light on form. But unlike the Impressionists, he studied the forms themselves as well as their underlying structure, experimenting with geometric perspective. He stated, “The eye is not enough, reflection is needed.” And in a manner akin to contemporary scientific methods, using his intense powers of observation, he repeatedly studied his visual subjects over days, and sometimes years. He articulated his theories and insights competently in both the spoken and written word, but most importantly, he communicated his thoughts and ideas successfully on canvas. He created his own visual vocabulary, a new language that challenged established practices and inspired generations of artists. He wrote to his friend Emile Bernard, “The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We must not, however, be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formula of our illustrious predecessors…Let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperaments.”
He was never awarded the coveted Prix de Rome. But then, neither were his friends and colleagues – Pisarro, Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso. And the man who looked so hard at the world around him that he brought his eyes “to the point of bleeding”? Paul Cezanne.
The man who remarked on the similarities of writing fiction and calculating mathematics, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge,” also spent a great deal of his childhood and adolescence happily alone, thinking, imagining, pondering.
As a child, he found little stimulation in his formal school environment, but like many creative achievers whose formal education fails to stimulate their intellectual curiosity, he read widely on his own, a habit that would continue throughout his life. He loved music and played the violin. He was deeply interested in philosophy and literature. He had little interest in sports. Finally his father enrolled him, as a teen, in a progressive school which encouraged a humanistic approach to subjects and widely employed visuals and hands-on instruction to enhance learning experiences. It also supported his intense curiosity, his questions, and his penchant for lone reflection before lively discourse. He thrived.
Years later as grown man approaching middle age, he left Germany and moved to Princeton, New Jersey. Circumstances had demanded that he leave his homeland, for under the Nazi regime his ideas, and very presence, so challenged authorities that he and his family were no longer safe. After settling in at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, he wrote to a friend: “Princeton is a wonderful little spot, a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts. Yet by ignoring certain social conventions I have been able to create for myself an atmosphere conducive to study and free of distraction. Here the people who compose what is called ‘society’ enjoy even less freedom than their counterparts in Europe. Yet, they seem unaware of this restriction, since their way of life tends to inhibit personality development from their childhood.”
The man who wrote those words turned the scientific community, and the world, upside down writing not one, but five papers that changed the course of scientific study. He would eventually win the Nobel Prize for physics. That man, as you have probably guessed, was Albert Einstein.
Artists and scientists are often assumed to be polar opposites in temperament, outlook, and work habit. In actuality, as exemplified by the stories of these three great achievers, they are amazingly alike. Even when not of the “genius” category, most artists and scientists are intellectually curious, self-motivated, tenacious, observant, daring, and disciplined. They are driven by passion. They not only wonder; they possess a sense of wonder. They question accepted norms, professional authorities, and structures of power. And they are great problem solvers; for that is what creativity is – problem solving. As a nation, we are in need of problem solvers. The question is: are we creating an atmosphere in our schools, in our homes, in our communities, and in our broader culture, that nurtures critical and creative thinking?
Even casual observers of the art world, the Broadway stage, popular music, and the electronic media have sensed a notable lack of originality in our nation’s cultural scene over the last decades. Literacy skills have not substantially improved in young people in over thirty years, and as the recent National Endowment for the Arts Reading at Risk report articulates, interest in literature is waning across all age groups at a rate far exceeding previous expectations. The United States falls far behind other industrial nations in science and math assessments, professional fields of increasing disinterest to our young people. We once excelled in industrial innovation; we have now lost our edge. As Thomas Freidman astutely observed in The New York Times, “we are developing an education gap. Here is the dirty little secret that no C.E.O. wants to tell you: they are not just outsourcing to save on salary. They are doing it because they can often get better-skilled and more productive people than their American workers.”
The United States’ success as a nation and as an economic power has come about because we are not only a nation of implementers; we are also a nation of innovators. If we are to thrive as a democracy and compete successfully in the world economically we desperately need problem solvers – creative and critical innovators in every field. We are not creating atmospheres which nurture innovators, not in our greater society, and not in our schools. Genius can occasionally surmount the inadequacies of formal education, cultural institutions, and societal dysfunction; mere mortals need support and nourishment.
We live in a country founded on principles of individual choice, individual responsibility, and individual freedom, but we live in an economic environment which conditions us to think and behave like a herd of sheep. A mass market economy needs mass market thinking to make masses of money. It promotes a mentality that buys into an array of false concepts which it can then package, make generic, and sell to the largest possible audience. How are we to nurture the individual creative spirits of our young people when a large part of our culture promotes conformity, seducing us with the security of the well fed, distracting us with a vast web of superficial electronic entertainment. As Donna Harroway observes in Theories and Arguments of Contemporary Art, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves are frighteningly inert.”
Charter schools, vouchers, and mandatory testing are inadequate band-aids applied to an educational system that is not just bleeding, it’s hemorrhaging. And reforms that target only a particular stage of educational growth are another example of our national lack of vision. When your entire body is wracked with cancer, you don’t go to a podiatrist; you act with urgency and pull in all the specialists who together work to make you healthy. I often wonder if the individuals and institutions pushing these so called “educational reforms” truly care about our children and their development. Or are they just trying to produce workers who have acquired enough information to be competent employees, but not enough critical and creative thinking skills that will lead them to question power?
As a teacher, author, illustrator, and president of a national literacy organization, I have spent a great deal of time in schools working with a wide variety of students, teachers, and parents for well over a decade. What I have seen deeply disturbs me, for there is a dark side to mandatory testing that profoundly discourages creative and critical thinking. At first, only the most insecure teachers taught to the test. Now, even gifted teachers are trapped spending most of their time teaching only the information covered by mandatory tests, tests that promote formulaic writing and conformist thinking. Many of these gifted teachers are forced by circumstances to use textbooks published by the same companies that make the tests, whether or not these textbooks are the best available. Because teaching for the tests takes up the majority of school time, kids of all ages have no time to wonder, no time to observe and question, no time to work alone, no time for joy. Serendipitous moments of discovery rarely occur in our nation’s schools. And when our children come home their lives are so full of activities – organized sports, cathartic television viewing, electronic chattering, and simulated battling – that there is little time for them to pretend, to play, to relax, to think, to reflect; to turn a tidal wave of information into a fountain of knowledge.
It would help immeasurably if educational theorists, legislators, and the business community stopped thinking of our children as assembly line products and started asking the question, “How can we create an atmosphere in our homes and schools, in our communities and our nation that helps our children become all they are meant to be?”
No, I am not advocating a 1970’s “free to be you and me” approach to education. Yes, objective assessments are necessary, basic competencies should be required. But we need to remember that process is more important than performance; that creativity thrives under broad but not limitless choices; that critical thinking requires a disciplined mind and an open heart.
If we are to create the innovative thinkers we need to survive and thrive as a democratic nation and economic power in the twenty-first century, our children and their education must be a national priority equal to that of national defense, for our future security depends on it. And in a capitalistic society that means putting your money where your mouth is. Otherwise we’re just lying to ourselves and our children. It also means that like Galileo, Cezanne, and Einstein, we need to broaden our vision and question the status quo. For example, in a technologically advanced society in which career change is the norm rather than the exception, should the opportunities of public education be limited to citizens aged five to eighteen? Are the formal designations that enclose educational experience – preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, college, graduate school – still relevant to our needs or even flexible enough for the twenty-first century? And our questions, and those of our children, should not only be ones that seek pragmatic solutions. We need questions which ask how and why and where and when. Questions which lead us on journeys of exploration into the endless layers of God and our universe, questions which lead us on inward journeys pondering the machinations of our own bodies and souls.
Albert Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Let us rediscover that gift of intuition and creativity and share it with our children. To paraphrase the immortal words of J. Alfred Prufrock, let us dare to disturb the universe.
© 2005 Mary Brigid Barrett
The author was inspired by readings from three books:
The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn
The Creators by Daniel J. Boorstein
Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children’s Literature compiled and Edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire