I am writing this blog because of an article my life-partner (Barbara Bickel) passed on to me today. It is very interesting because rarely does an educator, never mind an art educator and artist in the (American) profession of Art Education, come out so bluntly in their national newspaper (NAEA News, Apr. 2015) announcing in the opening paragraph:
"... I will take a moment to reflect on what I value as an artist, educator, and spiritualist as contemplation on fear-based educational paradigms. As I was meditating, clarity about just how much we are victims of a fear-based society [i.e., "culture of fear," by many other names]. (Willis, 2015, p. 15).
Whoa! Way to go Steve Willis, who is also USSEA Pres., Prof. of Art Education, Missouri State University. I see he is someone new I have not come across in my research over the years in both the field of education (and its radical thinkers), and in my study of fear and culture of fear. He is just a few hrs. drive from Carbondale, IL too so that makes it more interesting to me. I appreciate he isn't afraid to call himself, in professional (and art) circles a "spiritualist" (whatever that exactly might mean to him).
I think many feel what Steve feels (yes, especially school teachers), but few articulate it or even know how to. Too many have accepted it as the 'new normal' for American society. The issue he raises (and then somewhat dismisses) is "fear-based educational paradigms" as I see it-- and indeed Steve's concern is one of many educators, across the fields of study and specializations. I have documented that literature in "Culture of Fear and Education: An Annotated Bibliography, 1990-2011)" which I published some 4 yrs. ago (go to the link and scroll down for a free pdf). I would love educators of all stripes to tune-in to the vast amount of consensus on the Fear Problem in Education. All the years, since 1989, I have more or less been trying to rally educators to address this problem, or even discuss it openly, and I can conclude that it has been a dismal failure, for lots of reasons, many I have written about in other publications. But maybe I am being too negative in focus here and in my research? Isn't that the other (primary) reason Steve wrote his article--he was concerned about his own practices for years of "focusing on the negative" (his words).
Being Positive, Being Negative: Where Should We Focus?
I too am a "spiritualist" (if one wants to use that word), meaning I give a good deal of my attention on my spiritual development (or what some call integral and/or transpersonal, transcendent or esoteric). I won't try to define those here. My interest was how Steve has put forward an argument (after also consulting with his wife who is a "spiritual leader," as he calls her) something like this in his article: I have worked most all my life to be a good and just person, and school art teacher... but over the years all he was seeing (predominantly anyways) in schools, in kids and their families, in communities, in the administration of Education, among his fellow teachers, etc. were the many "negative aspects." He then says, upon critical and meditative reflection (and from spiritual teachings he's been studying) that he was sort of wasting his time all those years fighting against the negative and trying to make it positive. He wrote, "... I was inadvertly an active participant in a negatively reinforced, no-win scenario" [i.e., the self-reinforcing energies and conflicts of a fear-based paradigm and fear-based society that breeds on it]. He too, implicitly, was becoming fear-based (= negative focused). All his ways of perceiving, thinking, acting (with good intention) were no longer (apparently) valid, due to his new spiritual insight--an insight that he says comes down to claiming (believing) that it is better to be "heart-centered" or what many call love-based.
There is a lot more in his short article, which I so appreciate he wrote and is publishing amongst his peers. We need a lot more of this kind of discussion. I touch on a few things and leave much unsaid. On the other hand, I am not as celebratory as he seems to be now with his heart-centered focus. This is a long long philosophical/theological critique I have made for decades of people (and educators, and spiritualists) who fall prey to a rather dubious worldview themselves in the 'name' of love-heart centeredness-- that IF they focus on the negative, more negative will be created (and they will attract and feel more negative). I well know that esoteric philosophy, and I also well know it has validity problems, in the sense of the requirement that many spiritual teachings share that we require not one or the other (not positive vs. negative)--see for example, the best of polarity therapy and its philosophy (also Taoism, etc.). There is a common tendency, I have observed, for people to "swing" from one extreme (e.g., overly negative focused) to another extreme (e.g., overly positive focused)--now, if you apply that to where one ought to focus their attention to be good critical thinkers and just citizens today-- this complicates things to where Steve's argument tends to come off as if he is telling us not to focus on fear (i.e., the negative) and only (or more so) on love. What is better? What teachings are worthy in helping us with this ancient dilemma?
No easy answer to that question. I only know, I am always cautious when someone has a 'turn around' euphoric experience (as Steve clearly describes in his article--albeit, he admits it was hard work turning negative focus into positive focus) and wants to promote it immediately to the rest of the world, with arguments that are dubious when examined closely. I have been so intent on improving the distinctions (with data, with research) between "love-based" and "fear-based" and how they are so typically located by people and teachers into fear vs. love, or some such derivative (i.e., a belief system). I have published an extensive paper on this a few years back entitled: Love and Fear (Yellow Paper DIFS-6). As well, another paper available in which I go after the criticality required to even label something "fear-based" (as Steve does)--not so easy of a task when you really get down to it. These are reasons for me for being cautious to grand claims, that Steve and many others who think like he does around fear (negative) vs. love (positive)... and conflate that with fear (head) and love (heart), etc. See my critical paper entitled: "The Problem of Defining the Concept 'Fear-based'" (perhaps, I'm too negative for focusing so much research on "fear"?... ha ha).
What I most appreciate in Steve's honesty, even more than I am enthused of his 'turn around' perspective (no doubt it is helpful to him and others to some degree), is calling truth the truth, reality the reality (as best we can conceive) in a critical discourse of naming the Fear Problem in education (and the rest of the society, especially in the West and in America). If we stop focusing equal attention on fear (as say with love), then we are going to be in an even more dangerous situation than we are now with the fear-based paradigm and its deep infiltration not into only our consciousness (or hearts) but in the very structures of societies, like architectures, curriculum designs, and I could go on and on. Having a change of heart, and finding more balance from looking too much at the negative and fighting against it is one thing (a good thing), but more or less rejecting the hard work of looking into 'Hell' at the same time as 'Heaven'--that's, the path of fearlessness in a nutshell (as are most of the non-dual teachings from many traditions).
I think Steve, and others like him, have (dare I say) struck a chord on the 'right track' to liberation but they tend to "swing" in extremes... oh, my god, that is a chronic problem in schools, education, and near random styles/values shifting from this to that (e.g., fav ice cream flavor of the week)-- Steve must know that. So, I encourage him to really stop reinforcing the fear-based paradigm completely (and actually, start by not calling it "negative" and setting up a binary with "positive")... and yes, I support Steve's great initiative with himself and his colleagues to:
"Imagine the freshness and excitement of an artist [educator] creating without fear and anxiety...".
I am very interested in better recognizing fear ('fear') when we don't... and my research says, we most often don't recognize it. I look forward and celebrate artists of the future, becoming educators, and following compassion and wisdom, along with good critical analysis of body-head-heart-soul-spirit ... call it holistic-integral education, or whatever.
There is so much great teaching, from around the world, on moving from fear to fearlessness... I wrote a book on it (smile).
Okay, I look forward to more dialogue on this, and if I can help, let me know. Yes, may we find that precarity of 'balance' that may or may not actually exist in the Real World!
Willis, S. (2015). United States Society for Education Through Art (USSEA). National Art Education Association News, Apr. 25, 15.