Quyen Truong on ‘Art-Smart’ — Art, Education, and Social Justice

Art creates the spaces in which we can safely explore associative thought processes, lead us on journeys towards new modes of understanding (of ourselves and the world in which we operate), and engage us in topics we never expected to find interesting. Art led me from Calvin and Hobbes, to creating murals for Hartford, to building a teen arts enterprise program in Woonsocket, to becoming an educator and a social entrepreneur at Artists For Humanity, to Harvard Graduate School of Education, and now to addressing homelessness in Central Massachusetts… Oh, the places we’ll go!

Dr. Seuss once wrote,

“You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains, and your shoes full of feet,
you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.”

This poem exemplifies how I feel about art – for many years, art was the one place where I felt completely free to do whatever I please. So many factors felt outside of my control – my family socio-economic circumstances, our beleaguered finances, my mother’s moodiness, and my complete inability to do anything to change any aspect of our access to means. The frustration gnawed at me as I lay awake at night, listening to the snores of my parents and younger brother in our one-bedroom basement apartment.Art gave me a direction. It paved the way for my journey. The power of complete control over the composition, color, mark-making, subject matter and texture of a two-dimensional image would take my mind off my adult worries, and occupy my childhood self for hours. Looking at a blank canvas to envision what it can become created both trepidation and excitement, both a desire to play and an interest in manipulating the material to express exactly how I felt. The blank canvas became a medium through which I could self-direct my life during my teenage years. Nonetheless, I continued to keep Dr. Seuss’ words in mind, as I continued on my path towards self-actualization:

“So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with you left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will indeed!”

Howard Gardner touts the idea that multiple intelligences exist to describe our individual strengths, and that we must acknowledge each of our unique students’ strength in the realm of formal public education. He says: “I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place. Knowledge is not the same as morality, but we need to understand if we are to avoid past mistakes and move in productive directions. An important part of that understanding is knowing who we are and what we can do… Ultimately, we must synthesize our understandings for ourselves. (Gardner, 1999)

The ability to organize people, to empathize, to reflect in a thoughtful manner – these types of intelligences are not necessarily valued in a school setting where there is too much of a focus on testing. The ability to gorge on information and to efficiently regurgitate it back does not equate to being “smart,” much less art-smart. Being art-smart is about becoming an independent thinker, through whatever form of intelligence best fits our particular needs, interests, modes of learning, and communication tactics. Being art-smart is about seeing the journey for what it is – and not focusing on the destination. Being art-smart is about being mindful, cantankerous, cultivated, cautious, and curious. Being art-smart is being okay with the concept that “whatever will be, will be.”

Que sera, sera, indeed!

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