“The problem of education in a democratic society is to do away with dualism and to construct a course of study which makes thought a guide of free practice for all which makes leisure a reward of accepting responsibility for service, rather than a state of exemption from it.” — John Dewey
“I think part of Western metaphysical dualism is, we’re always being asked to choose one over the other.” — bell hooks
At home, former president Donald J. Trump is facing multiple criminal cases for his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the run-up to the violent riot by his supporters at the US Capitol, in an unprecedented effort to block the peaceful transfer of presidential power, posing a great threat to American democracy. Abroad, we observe how Xi Jinping in China is carefully watching the way Vladimir Putin is both tightening and gradually losing his iron grip on power. Although Putin has thus far gotten away with his murderous atrocities, his miscalculation of the will of Ukrainian people has proven to be the result of his unprovoked aggression. Similarly, the Taiwanese people may well be capable of rising up with unexpected strength and valor against China, should Xi decide to take advantage of the endless spectacle of political turmoil in the US and invade Taiwan.
Along with the unrelenting crises in our natural environment, we also enter the fall with other questions of great solemnity. Among these is the escalation of internal conflict between the Right’s total surrender to Trump’s repetitive narrative of nostalgia as the Republican frontrunner for 2024, and the Left standing behind Biden’s social and economic policies. While trying in somewhat different ways to decide what to do with the opportunity Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky has given us for unifying the West, both American political parties seem to acknowledge that the rising power of China will soon threaten to overturn the global hegemony of the US. As China challenges America’s predominance, the most urgent reminder from history is that misunderstandings about each other’s intentions can lead nations into unimaginable wars of epic proportions. Graham Allison calls this kind of potential clash of power Thucydides’s Trap, referring to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who chronicled the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.”
From the perspectives of our community in the arts and humanities, including those in the academy, we ask ourselves what we can do to appeal to policy makers with lessons from history that can be useful, heeding George Santayana’s warning that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” First, we should examine where we are in our current condition: though the Left has sided with the European Union, many on the Left nonetheless banish the teaching of Western Civilization, which they consider evil because of the history of colonization. Although many on the Right on college campuses rail against liberal values, and often express a deep repugnance towards the European Union, they nonetheless demand that Western Civilization be widely taught to all undergraduates. All of this points to an historical crisis, in which our education system has been dependent on an old model of social organization, using a kind of industrialized educational process in order to train the young to be conformists or byproducts prepared only to feed the highly-specialized demands of industry.
Shouldn’t we reconfigure our educational system so that imagination is not detached from intelligence? For we know all too well that there are many of our fellow human beings who think they are creative but not intelligent, just as there are others who feel they are intelligent but not creative. This polarity is often drastically exaggerated. So we should remind ourselves from time to time that everyone has innate creative capacities in relation to things that they love, and so it is our moral duty to advocate for aesthetic experiences as a counter against anesthetics. Creative achievement is amplified by full alertness to living in the moment, with all the senses turned on. And this of course is the opposite of avoiding any forms of feeling for fear of the discomfort that alert awareness and deep feelings can create. Avoiding deep feelings is tantamount to turning off, or at least turning down all the senses, while living in a vital way entails enhancing our awareness of the realities around us.
On a related front, the division of labor must be constantly mediated and measured, as Adam Smith once famously argued: the difference between a street porter and a philosopher was as much a consequence of the division of labor as its cause. This naturally leads to our need to cultivate the awareness of history as a sensibility that embraces fundamental humility, which in turn equips us to pose questions about our contemporary issues, including how to negotiate with systems, however big or small, knowing that there exists an enormous advantage in our free and open society, which encourages self-corrective mechanisms as an important aspect of freedom. It’s here that democracy in America has its greatest strength, as long as it remains an ongoing experiment, even at the expense of the kind of fierce self-criticism that we’re going through at the moment. It’s this openness to critical thinking and self-examination that allows us to avoid the kind of darkness that is encouraged by totalitarian regimes, in which a Ministry of State Security is charged with suppressing any form or shape of alternative activity or discourse, be it in the public sphere or in people’s private spaces, which are constantly kept under surveillance.
Again, we should remind ourselves that creativity comes from the activation of our imagination, which can only be materialized through an open society, as opposed to a closed one that is controlled by dictatorial constraints on thought. As we move forward with our ability to adapt, we must treasure our freedom to be creative, which derives from the power of our imagination. We should not be afraid of our own failures, or our own imperfections, for we know all too well that human organizations are not machines but rather like organisms, which grow and thrive through the full operation of sentience and motivation. Every leader in each field of discipline in the arts and humanities should be like a farmer, whose imperative is to cultivate a condition under which every plant can grow handsomely to its full potential.
Let’s all be constant gardeners, shall we?
In solidarity with love, courage, and cosmic optimism,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable lives and works of our admirable mentors and friends. Dr. Vivian Pan (1961–2023) who had served as the sixth Chair in the legendary Studio in a School’s forty-six-year history. Under Dr. Pan’s leadership, between 2018 and 2023, the synthesis of the Studio in a School and Studio Institute has seamlessly thrived with greater clarity and urgency in elevating the importance of art education in underserved communities from New York City, New Jersey, Cleveland, Memphis, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore to Providence and Connecticut. We’re also in deep gratitude to Joop Sanders (1921–2023), and Brice Marden (1938–2023), whose contributions to painting culture were of great profundity in their respective embodiments through abstraction, Joan K. Davidson (1927–2023), and Jean-Louis Cohen (1949–2023) whose lifelong dedications to architecture, preservation, and urban planning were legendary in their fearless advocacy. We’d like to send our collective and deep condolences to Vivian’s husband Mark and daughter Inga, Joop’s children Karin, John, son-in-law Timothy, two granddaughters, Isca, Liliana; Brice’s wife Helen, daughters, Mirabelle and Melia, and Nicholas; Joan’s children John, G. Bradford, Betsy, and Peter; and the rest of their extended families, and admirers. Meanwhile, we’d like to thank Ifeanyi Odita and Lamyae Bouzidi for their brilliant work as our interns par excellence this past summer, while welcoming Lyle Rexer and Paul Gladston as our new Editors-at-Large, Malchijah Judah Hoskins as our new Production Assistant.