I Never Took a Course in Drawing

At each conference recently, I’ve found myself discussing the same quandary: how do we implement curriculum so that the arts occupy a central, not ancillary, position?

Particularly in the realm of Classical education, we extol the value of the arts as a component of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). Yet each of us lives in a world where music, dance, theater, and visual art are seen as frills, or, at best, electives. This diminished labeling exists even within some of the finest Classical curricula.

What do we do about this? One answer comes from remembering the central position the arts held within a serious education in centuries past. A well-educated person attained at least basic skills in several of the Fine Arts, such as dance, drawing, recitation of poetry, or music. The goal wasn’t professional mastery, but the ability minimally to execute, or at least appreciate, the arts. No one questioned this emphasis, just as no one questioned a young man’s training in fencing or a girl’s study of needlepoint.

But to learn and master the execution of the arts, or to gain appreciation or historical understanding of the arts, they must be studied as a core component of daily education. They can’t be pasted on in the manner of an elective (although, admittedly “some” knowledge is better than none).

stick-figureLet me give you a funny example. A few years ago, while crossing the Atlantic on a large cruise ship where I served as a Smithsonian speaker, I enrolled in an art class. Ships at sea have many such classes, and they are often quite good.

The first class dealt with collage (you should have seen my fabulous construction-paper collage of a coffee mug stuffed with colored pencils). “I can do this,” I thought!

But then we had our first drawing class. Okay, first class isn’t quite the right word, because “first” implies a step-by-step introduction to a skill, right? As it turns out, these people could draw already, or at least understood line and perspective. Everyone but me.

We went up to the 16th deck (yes, the ship was that big) and spread out across the Astro Turf. “Let’s sketch this chair,” the teacher said, pointing to a wood-slatted deck chair. They all dove in, quickly sketching it at several angles. I sat there thinking. “Okay, I have no idea what to do . . . but, hey, no one is going to notice I cannot do this, so I’ll just wiggle my pencil and look thoughtful until it’s over.”

Except the teacher did notice. He smiled as if I were a child. “You’ve never done this before, have you?” Well that was apparent.

He put his hand over mine and started sketching the outlines of the chair in the proper proportions. “Here. See if you can take it from there.” He had essentially eliminated my need to have any skill and brought me to a point where I could, at least, decorate my chair with squiggles.

I’ve often reflected back upon that experience. I wish I had more skill at art, but the fact is that I trained my hands at an early age to play music, not to draw. Yet, knowing music helps me to appreciate art. Music provides me an historical and aesthetic frame through which I can weave knowledge from virtually every discipline.

The arts don’t just beautify or inspire us. They develop us. They take our primitive physical and intellectual abilities and make them more exacting, flexible, and effective. They hone our creative and analytic abilities, challenging every aspect of our being (and not just a right or left brain lobe).

I like to use another example: George Washington was renown as one of his era’s best social dancers. His ability to negotiate the subtleties of minuets, allemandes, and jigs (gigues) with exceptional virtuosity was not unrelated to his ability to strategize a military campaign.

In fact, if you look historically, a person’s aptitude in court dance was recognized throughout Europe as a way to assess that person’s cognitive and physical abilities. It was all there on display: memory, coordination, flexibility, fortitude, and grace. A mistake on the dance floor in the French Baroque courts was called a faux pas (false step). This term did not mean “picking up the wrong fork.” It meant making an obvious error in something that should have been learned and mastered.

We can’t approach the Fine Arts as an occasional add-on and expect to develop any proficiency or love for the subjects. Insofar as the performing arts, obviously an early start is desirable; but abilities can be developed at any age (witness the proliferation of classes one finds in senior centers).

Developing the arts as a central column in the curriculum, from the youngest possible age, allows the student’s mind to be shaped in a critical way, whether in terms of creating art or appreciating art. As long as we treat it as an elective, a frill, or a specialization suitable for only a few, we deprive students of enormous, life-long benefits.

And so, as we struggle in our modern world (whether in brick and mortar buildings or in a homeschool) to provide a traditional, and necessary, study of the arts, let us take one concern out of the mix: toss that sense of guilt when focusing on the arts. We are not wasting time, amusing ourselves with easy things, or diverting our students from the “truly important” work. We are, instead, pursing what the Ancients considered a cornerstone of true education.

We’re Supposed To Know It

We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.

These words have resonated in my mind since hearing them said to me last Friday in our Krakow hotel. It was the last day of our Smithsonian Journeys “Week-in-Krakow” tour. The setting was a restored, golden-bricked medieval cellar where our breakfast was laid each morning.

I’d given my final lecture earlier in a side alcove of the cellar used for presentations. Other than the morning talk, the day was unscheduled, and I was going to be able to eat a leisurely breakfast after speaking. What a rarity that is!

A young waitress set a hearty omelet before me. I nodded and started to dissolve back into my book when she asked quietly: “What was that music you were playing in there?”

She asked in perfect English. (Everyone under 30 seems to speak English here.) What music did she mean? Then I knew. She’d overheard my lecture since only an ancient door of weathered boards separates that space from the breakfasters.

“Ah, that music. Chopin. The first piece was one of his songs called Wiosna (Spring),“ I smiled. “Most people know Chopin’s piano pieces, but they don’t necessarily know he wrote songs.”

“Oh,” she said, still waiting. “And the other music at the end was a clip I showed from a movie called Moonlight Sonata starring your Paderewski.” She nodded at the name of Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941). “It’s a sweet scene where he plays an ornate rendition of his famous Minuet at a children’s hospital.“


Boznańska, Girl with Chrysanthemums (1894)

Her eyes continued to inquire, so I continued. “In between, I was showing images from your wonderful Polish painters, like Chelmonski and Boznańska. In the U.S. we don’t learn many Polish paintings, but you know this art, of course.”

That’s when she said it. “We’re supposed to know it, but we don’t.”

She said it so wistfully, I almost caught my breath. Then I got the picture. She was wishing she had been sitting in the lectures, rather than carrying fruit trays and clearing plates. She wanted to go back and fill in the gaps in her education.

She continued to stand there. I sensed two choices: I could thank her for the omelet and go back to my book. Or, I could follow the twitch in my heart and do something different. But should I?

I looked around. Everyone was gone but us and another young waitress clearing the buffet. The quiet time between breakfast and lunch shifts had descended. I followed my heart: “Would you like to see some of the talk? I can show you right here.” She smiled broadly and called her colleague to come over.

I cranked up the computer and gave them the ten-minute version of the talk. Yes, an hour-long talk can be compressed into ten minutes.

They listened thoughtfully to Wiosna and watched the video clip. I told them more about “their” Paderewski who was just a “book name” to them. In vivid terms, I described this dynamic pianist who took the music world by storm and ultimately served as Premier in the newly restored, independent country of Poland after World War I.

Then we flew through images of gorgeous 19th-century Polish paintings—the same images that had captivated my own guests an hour earlier. They recognized many, but not all, of the paintings. They asked questions, too. It’s amazing how much you can pack into a short time when you have to. It was like ice-skating through Polish cultural history.

Then the restaurant manager walked in. I closed the computer. They moved back to work with a twinkle in their eyes. The omelet, while cold, was still delicious.

They knew enough to know that I was teaching icons of their culture. And they were “supposed” to know these things not for a test or a better job, but because it’s part of who they are as Poles. How many of us in the United States can identify the gaps in our education, especially after we have stripped so much of the Western Canon out of our curricula?

One source of continual inspiration, since beginning “Professor Carol,” happens to be the parents I meet who are dedicated to obtaining a better education for their children than the ones they received. Whether they accomplish this through exceptional diligence for their publicly schooled kids, breaking the bank for private schooling, or by home-schooling, they are determined. It’s a battle and they don’t want to lose again.

We are supposed to know it, but we don’t. It is our duty, and privilege, to make sure this changes.

No Selfies

Selfie_icon.svgTwice on Sunday I forgot to take a selfie. The first time came during a joyous afternoon reunion here in Latvia with two long-ago SMU students. Both fantastic musicians, these “kids” were members of our orchestra in the early 1990s, a time many refer to as a Golden Age in our newly fashioned Artist Certificate program. They (and others from countries like Russia, France, Czech Republic, China, Bulgaria, and Spain) brought enormous talent, a razor-sharp work ethic, and hearts overflowing with enthusiasm.

Some went on to forge stellar music careers; others moved into innovative jobs outside of music. No matter which avenue their lives took, it is always a tremendous honor to visit with them years later, wherever I may be.

In this case, the three of us spent a leisurely afternoon of reminiscence and rejoicing at a trendy Riga coffee shop. Now, here’s the thing: if we had been teenagers, we’d have taken a selfie — a dozen “selfies.” And I did intend to take at least one picture. But we were so caught up laughing, and recalling persons and events, we simply didn’t think about pictures. Only when I returned to my hotel did it hit me. Gosh, lost opportunity there, right?

The second omission happened earlier that same day. Our Smithsonian group was weaving its way through Riga’s Old Town, taking in the endless architectural delights. Our tour operator (a vibrant Lithuanian woman), was bringing up the rear when she found herself suddenly approached by a dignified man. He was dressed in an old-fashioned suit and vest and, perhaps seeing her kind face, had begun to speak with her. I moved back to check things out. A retired Art professor in our group joined me, just in case something interesting was going on.

Within seconds we were drawn into their powerful conversation. I translated as seamlessly as I could for our professor who could barely believe his ears.

This gentleman, in 1940, had enlisted in the Russian army at age thirteen. A Russian born in Riga in 1927, he convinced authorities he was seventeen and got away with it. He then fought against the Germans and survived. He recalled seeing Stalin on multiple occasions while in Moscow. For him, of course, Stalin was the heroic leader who stopped Hitler.

After the war, this man came back to his home country. Latvia was part of the territory traded at Yalta to the Russians and subsumed into the Soviet Union. Folks in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia often say “the Russians liberated us but forgot to go home.” Such dry humor hides their deep bitterness at winning the war, only to be defeated by forty-plus years of disastrous Communism.

Past retirement by the time Latvia, along with Estonia and Lithuania, declared its independence from of the USSR in 1990, this man seemed not to have had had his world turned upside down as did so many younger Latvian Russians. Simply put, persons (Russians) who were high up on the hierarchical ladder during the decades of Communism were suddenly cast down and, in many cases, cast out. If he did experience this, he didn’t mention it.

What he did tell us, though, had to do with a commemoration on May 9th (Victory Day) signed by Putin himself, of which he was very proud. Now at age 90, he was being officially honored as a soldier in the Second World War. He pulled his shoulders back strong and tall when he described the commendation.

As part of his recognition, he was receiving a two-week visit to a spa on the Baltic seacoast in June. It was pretty clear that he hadn’t spent life enjoying resorts. He couldn’t wait for it to begin.

I’ve been privy to such spontaneous conversations with World War II Russian veterans, although fewer as that generation is nearly gone. But my art professor had not heard anything quite like this. As with everyone in the group, he is drinking in reams of information during his first serious tour of the Baltic countries. And he is coming to understand the different heritages, languages, geographical features, and personalities of these three countries united primarily by common misfortune: invasions, occupations, destruction, and rebuilding. This has been the cycle, from pre-history through the Northern Crusades. From Napoleon to World Wars I & II and 40 more years of Communism. That’s it: shared misfortune and a border on the Baltic Sea.

As our group was drifting away from us, we had to say goodbye. He was reluctant to part with us. He was enjoying telling his story. Only after we’d parted did my art professor and I simultaneously clap ourselves on our foreheads: “Yikes, why didn’t we get a picture?” We consoled ourselves that maybe we’d see him near that same courtyard tomorrow.

But we didn’t. That’s the nature of touring. You get only one chance. And, unlike younger people, snapping pictures isn’t always our first instinct. We are more likely to gaze in wonder at the situations we encounter, the persons we meet. We are more geared to savor the moment than to post it to Instagram.

I wish I had both pictures. But actually I do. I have two pictures etched in my memory. The first shows a proud, 90-year old soldier whose eyes blazed as he told his story. The second shows me rejoicing in the presence of two now-grown-up “kids” who chose not to stay in an easier life in the US, but to return and offer their talents and hearts to a stunningly beautiful sea-side country that continues to struggle and rise on the wings of hope and prayer.

Image: Claire Jones, A Selfie Icon (CC BY 3.0)

Sharing a Mission

Ordinarily certain moments stand out in a busy conference: a warm conversation, a quick reunion with a student, or funny story shared by a colleague.


At the convention with Tanya Charlton and Martin Cothran

But in this year’s Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, every moment seemed to stand out! This conference rivals anything in the country. The long list of simultaneous sessions is impressive, and yet the rooms are filled with eager listeners. The attendees are fired up and full of questions. Our booth stays abuzz from the opening “bell” on Thursday evening until the last moments of the Saturday schedule. I love it.

But, as we careen through the night on our way back home to Texas, one moment did stand out, now that I think of it. Actually it’s a person. I won’t say too much to identify her except that she once again renewed her annual Circle of Scholars membership even though, I suspect, her kids may be just about grown up. She was one of our earliest customers, maybe even all the way back to that first year when we came to Cincinnati in 2010. There we stood in our long-since abandoned pop-up booth, sporting only a brochure for our signature course Discovering Music—not yet finished. We struggled to find the right words to proclaim our mission which, to be honest, we hadn’t quite identified!

The people who stopped by either already loved the arts or were curious enough to see what these newcomers had in that brochure. Some even bought the course, or, more accurately, the promise of a course that would be ready later in the year. They were bold, don’t you think?

Step by step we’ve added courses, created online curricula, filmed (and filmed and filmed), written books, and yes, found our mission. I like to say we Teach History Through the Lens of the Arts. And our battle cry goes like this.

Our Western cultural heritage is not an elective. It’s a treasure!

These past days in Cincinnati, greeting, chatting with, and embracing the flow of students, families, and tutors who use our materials, I just shook my head in wonder. How simply beautiful that we could have shared music, art, architecture, dance, theater, poetry, and literature with so many people. How grand it is that they took the leap with us, and found themselves on solid, and inspiring, ground. And how inspiring it is when we hear them say, “What’s new this year? We want more.”

That’s partly the magic of the arts. We do want more. We hear a terrific piece and we want to hear another one. We go to a marvelous play and we come out thinking: “I’ve got to go to the theater again soon.” And when we walk through a gallery of unfamiliar paintings only to have one of them reach across the room and pull us towards it to gaze in fascination or wonder, we know that we have joined with viewers past, present, and future in encountering the power of art.

Community always matters, and this community of people seeking learning, treasuring education, and working every day against great odds to instill wisdom and virtue in their children matters. They share our mission, and sharing their journey has been one my life’s greatest privileges.

And so, to you, most lovely woman who yet again came to my talks and watched me fumble with my iPad as I rang up your renewed annual membership, may I express my gratitude? Thank you for jumping into the race with us and cheering us on. I’ll do everything possible to have new courses and interesting publications for you next year, that’s for sure. But I’ll never forget that you and others trusted us when all we had was a brochure and a dream.

Prepare To Teach the Fine Arts

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents  tell me they don’t know how to teach Fine Arts. Yes, teaching any subject can be intimidating. But many people never received any meaningful exposure to the Fine Arts in their own education.

I hear the same thing from teachers who do exceptional work in their chosen field, but suddenly find that they have been given a  new responsibility of teaching art appreciation.

What are reasonable goals for a Fine Arts course? Where do you find the materials? How do the Fine Arts fit within the overall curricula?

These are just some of the questions that we will be answering in our symposium “Teaching the Arts Classically” on Saturday, May 13 in Plano, Texas. We have a great line-up of speakers for this event. We also present a workshop in sacred music, an exhibit of the works of Russia artist Evgeny Fuk, and a panel discussion where we take on your questions.

Don’t miss these presentations:

carol-camuzaggo-sm Keynote: A Classical Approach to Artistic Literacy
Dr. Carol Reynolds
 matt-post Dr. Matthew Post, Graduate Director of Humanities and Classical Education, University of Dallas
FrG-229x300 Poetry and Meaning: Theories and Strategies
Fr. Garrin Dickinson, Rector, Church of the Holy Nativity
Jenny headshot-crop Vitruvius and Beauty: Lessons from an Ancient Architect
Jenny Dickinson, Architect/Classical Educator

Click here for more information and registration.

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