All things are delicately interconnected.

Jenny Holzer, John Dewey, and the relatedness of all things.

Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s 1991 show at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo took the top of my head off. I had just turned 16, and though my best friend was a talented photographer, I did not feel particularly confident looking at art. But this was art like I had never seen.

PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME.

AMBIVALENCE CAN RUIN YOUR LIFE.

TECHNOLOGY WILL MAKE US OR BREAK US.

RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY.

YOUR OLDEST FEARS ARE THE WORST ONES.

YOU MUST HAVE ONE GRAND PASSION.

My favorite part of the exhibit was lines like these from Holzer’s “Truisms” series—nearly 300 phrases the artist devised in the late 1970s that slowly began to infiltrate mainstream culture through t-shirts, buttons, stickers, and signs. It was mass advertising strategy applied to unconventional wisdom: big ideas in short, strange, infectious sentences.

To me, the biggest idea was ALL THINGS ARE DELICATELY INTERCONNECTED. An activist preacher’s kid, I already loved Dr. King’s concept that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Everything is delicately interconnected. “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Within a few years, I decided to commit to teaching as the means to do my best affecting.

As I encouraged students to explore the connections between school life and life outside school, I realized the importance of identifying and pursuing a “grand passion,” as Holzer puts it. When you discover you’re passionate about something, the passion can supply the momentum necessary to move past early obstacles. As somebody passionate about music, I often use the example of getting past the uncomfortable hand-shape of the F chord on a guitar. C and G pose little difficulty for most novices, but once you get to the F chord—the shape that will let you play nearly every folk song because now you can do a I-IV-V chord progression—things can get frustrating. Passion to make your own music connects you to the motivation to find a way to become lord and master of the F chord. 

Just as important, passion fuels the curiosity that lets students discover that anything they’re passionate about is—eventually, ultimately—connected to everything else. Taking music again as an example, I liked to point out to students that the baby grand piano in the corner of our classroom was made in 1975. But it was as loud as it was, and as durable as it was, and had the high notes it did because of a Vienna rock star of the 1790s named Ludwig van Beethoven. Every piano’s design owes a debt to this wild player notorious for breaking hammers and strings, who had the popular following to demand that piano makers step up their game—a connection I discovered because of my passion for music. In 1981 the physicist Richard Feynman eloquently defended the connections that his passion for science allowed him to make about a flower, which was later cut and animated into 70 seconds of genius. The photographer I mentioned above is now a professor and artist who draws on many branches of science and philosophy to raise new questions through his images. 

As a teacher I believed it was important to geek out unabashedly, modeling passionate interests and the connections they made possible. Students quickly learned I love etymology for the mini-histories and ideologies that word stories contain, so they weren’t surprised to hear me observe that those “Arabic numerals” we’re using to note our page in the novel are called “Hindu numerals” by many Arabs, because the decimal Hindu-Arabic numeral system was developed in India in about 500 CE. The Persian mathematician writing in Arabic who helped to popularize the system through an 825 CE treatise was called Al-Khwārizmī—the basis of the English word algorithm. It took about a thousand years after their invention for these amazing symbols to catch on in Europe. (And they say English teachers can’t do math.)

The philosopher John Dewey critiqued traditional curriculum for so often isolating knowledge from its meaningful context, severing the interconnections that make it interesting by presenting knowledge in a “water-tight compartment” (Experience and Education, p. 48). Beginning with where students are right now, Dewey viewed illuminating less obvious interconnections as one of the important functions of school:

The life of the ancient Greeks and Romans has profoundly influenced our own, and yet the ways in which they affect us do not present themselves on the surface of our ordinary experiences. In similar fashion, peoples still existing, but remote in space […] directly concern our own social affairs, but the nature of the interaction cannot be understood without explicit statement and attention. In precisely similar fashion, our daily associations cannot be trusted to make clear to the young the part played in our activities by remote physical energies, and by invisible structures. Hence a special mode of social intercourse is instituted, the school, to care for such matters. (Democracy and Education, p. 19)

Dewey was also clear on the interconnection between what students learn and how they feel about the experience. Educators have the opportunity to shape whether learning feels exciting or torturous, which carries life-long consequences: 

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning. (Experience and Education, p. 48, emphasis added)

REFERENCES

John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916).

John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Kappa Delta Pi, 1938).

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), 290. 

Jan Swafford, “More Sound!” The Guardian (March 14, 2003).   

[Article copyright 2016 by Peter Horn, Ed.D. Images: circular projection during a Fall 2012 show at L&M Arts in California from artweek.la; engraved granite by Jenny Holzer (2015) from paddle8.com]

Peter Horn