Trusting ourselves to trust our students

Picture of Brian Reverman

Brian Reverman

Visiting artist - Educational consultant

What my son has reminded me about being an art teacher

For some reason beyond my uncool dad comprehension, my blue-eyed, sandy-haired, 15-year old is really into rap and hip-hop music and has been for several years. My son can speak like a musicologist about the genre, and he will often share his latest finds with me. He knows the context for each artist and their back stories. He can analyze the lyrics in a sophisticated way and can recognize a West Coast beat from a Detroit beat from an NYC beat. He has strong opinions about who is a true artist and who is a poseur. This music speaks to him.

Of course, when he first got into this music, I was concerned about the language, misogyny, and the attitude that success equals money in many of these songs. The lyrics seemed pretty rough for a young teenager. I swear like a sailor and listening to some of these songs makes me uncomfortable.

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When we talk about the music he likes, I’m honest with him about why it makes me uncomfortable. My son distinguishes between poetry and confrontational exhibitionism pretty well. He explains to me that the artists he respects are writing from their own sometimes troubled life experience and are reclaiming the language. I get that. It’s not the words themselves that bother me so much, as an artist I object to the laziness of some composers going for the easy shock-value.

Of course, all teens experiment with their identities and sometimes imitate their heroes. Hoodies and Jordans are part of my son’s fashion statement, but he understands that he comes from a different place and can separate himself from that language, which is not his own, in his attempts at writing lyrics. I believe that this ability to admire but not emulate these artists is because his interest has not been censored. He has been allowed to explore these songs on his own, and our discussions help him put the music in context and clarify differing values. While he knows rap and hip-hop is not my cup of tea, we discuss the music on his terms. We often agree to disagree, but he knows I respect his genuine curiosity and the intelligence of his arguments.

In all the time he has been listening to this music, I have only heard my son swear one time, in a highly emotional state, and he immediately apologized. He is a respectful, gentle, polite young man. He stands up for the rights of his female friends and is protective of all his friends.

His older sister, who has no patience for what she perceives as the violent misogyny in this music, takes him to task for his support of these artists. They vehemently disagree, but they each have thoughtful positions which they passionately defend. While I sometimes have to referee these discussions to keep the peace, I’m impressed by their ability to present evidence to support their viewpoint, honestly look at the other side and then make their decisions. They can do this because they have had teachers who showed them how.

I am grateful for those teachers, and the administrators who have supported them. If we are to raise generations of engaged and informed global citizens, we need more of that kind of teacher. We need to champion their courage, honesty, and skill. We need schools who don’t shy away from difficult questions for the sake of playing it safe. We can’t teach students to be critical thinkers and then be critical of what they think.

In light of what I have recently written about art class inadvertently enabling civic illiteracy, I was asking my friend who is the band teacher if he deals with delicate subjects in his classes. He told me a story of how one of his students protested that they shouldn’t play Michael Jackson music anymore due to the accusations against him. My friend reeled off several composers and musicians whose biographies include despicable behavior. These artists were known to his students, but this behavior was not. These revelations led to a great discussion about separating art and artist. While they came to no definitive conclusions, my friend felt the conversation much more valuable than the time they would have spent rehearsing.

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Our instinct to protect our students should not include denying them exposure to topics that have unpleasant, contentious, or sensitive aspects. Instead, we need to help guide them in dealing with these subjects intelligently, critically, and equitably so that they have experience with navigating and debating challenging ideas respectfully when they enter public life. Like anything they learn in school their ability to do so will increase in complexity as they develop, and our job as teachers is to guide them in developmentally appropriate ways.

This week the Trump administration tried to censor a report by one of its climate scientists in congressional testimony because the facts didn’t jibe with the administration’s position. Thinkprogress.com reported that GOP Congressman Rob Woodall had dismissed the Mueller report without reading it because a DOJ investigation “can drive an agenda.” Eight U.S states have laws that limit how teachers can address LGBTQ issues. Spin and willful ignorance are not strangers to politics, but the brazen nature of the attempts to scrub public policy of inconvenient facts seems on the rise along with the acceptance of that scrubbing for partisan and emotional reasons. If we have any hope of building a more sustainable and just world we must foster the ability to see the consequences of actions in a broad worldview. If we are to thwart the advancement of public policy put forth by those that cultivate and hide within an ignorance that denies any criticism of its specious positions, we must create citizens that can recognize and deconstruct subterfuge

Saving the world is an unfair burden to put solely on the young, but every generation faces, and hopefully improves on the world left to them by their parents. My son has shown me that by my respecting his curiosity, he is capable of finding a balanced and nuanced understanding of the art he enjoys. I’m confident he will take this curious and critical approach to find a balanced and nuanced understanding of the world at large. He has reinforced for me that I can trust myself to trust my students with issues that challenge their comfort zone.