Teaching should be like medicine, in that teacher’s should take the equivalent of the hippocratic oath: to do no harm!
In a recent article in Hyperallergic a veteran teacher, Anthony Hawley, discusses the sort of bitter medicine he prescribes to his students in a Color and Composition class. I would be shocked if I didn’t myself have this exact sort of art education in at least half my classes (OK, all of them in grad school). This kind of teaching needs to stop, and this kind of teacher should not be allowed in the classroom.
The problem in short:
- The teacher introduced radical and highly divisive politics into a class that has nothing to do with politics.
- The teacher has a political agenda and believes his convictions are so important that it is paramount students be informed of his perspective.
- Designates some students as “incredibly intelligent” and others as “basic”, and these critical attributes coincide conspicuously with race.
- Categorizes students by race, gender, sexual identification, etc.,and created a hierarchy of preferential treatment based on biological traits.
- Deliberately created activities that instigated battles in his classroom, pitting students against one another in relation to race, gender, ideas of privilege, and so on.
- Produced highly charged discord in the classroom, including students yelling at each other and bringing each other to tears.
- Took sides with some students against others in volatile debates that are completely extraneous to the subject of the class, thus severely alienating some students.
- Students reported feeling attacked, appalled, oppressed, unable to speak, and not allowed to be themselves in his class.
- Called out his students for being backwards or deplorable in a article in an art magazine, essentially publicly demonizing them for views he forced them to express.
In his intro he says, “never have I had classroom conversations as heated as the ones I am currently having in my color theory course this spring …”
Heated conversations about color theory? This is like having aggressive debates about harmony in a music school. I didn’t know people got so excited about hue, reflective color, the rule of thirds, and all that theoretical, visual art stuff. Oh, that’s not what they were arguing about? What was it then?
“… about gender, identity, race and privilege.”
I think it’s safe to say that there was a time when it would never occur to a teacher of Color and Composition to discuss identity politics any more than it would an algebra teacher. On the other hand, color does denote, well, color. But by the same logic an = sign suggests the concept of equality, in which case an Algebra class could and should be a venue for discussing inequality in regards to race and gender, with a clear bias that takes no prisoners.
His next sentence is quite telling:
Incredibly intelligent, unapologetic young black women calling out young white women for being privileged, basic, and offensive in their tastes and their characterizations of women.
This signals a tragic situation in the classroom and an obviously toxic environment for the white women. Hawley has already set up a binary situation in which amazing students are pitted against retrogressive ones, and this is unsurprisingly somehow tied to biology. It reminds me of those sadistic “Blue eyes–Brown eyes” social experiments Jane Elliott used to inflict on her students in the late 60’s. You know, the ones where all the blue-eyed students were treated as incredibly special for days on end, and then she later reversed it and discriminated against the blue-eyed students. She became famous for this and much later did a seminar version in which she pulled the same tricks on adults more transparently using skin color as her justification.
Part of Elliot’s modus operandi is bringing young white women to tears. It never crosses her mind, apparently, that if she were a participant in the seminar she would automatically be abused by herself as presumed guilty and needing a cruel life lesson in humility. It is not ironic to assign automatic deleterious qualities to people based on their anatomy, and then resort to teaching them tough lessons in humiliation, I guess. I mean, this is what Elliott and Hawley trade in, and they get accolades for it.
Hawley is performing the “Blue eyes–Brown eyes” experiment on his art students for a whole term, without ever reversing the roles. It’s quite obvious who got the short stick, and no doubt this scenario will repeat itself to some degree in each of his classes. I think we all know the hierarchy of race, gender, sexual orientation, and sexual identification he is using here. Notice how the young black women are incredibly intelligent and unapologetic while and the young white women are privileged, basic, and offensive. [It’s generally bad form to speak of students’ intelligence rather than their effort, especially to them.]
Oh, the joy of abusing those young white women with impunity while excusing it with presumed moral authority. It makes a sadistic ideologue drool rivulets off his chin. And the teacher is so sure of himself, so self-righteous, that he publicly publishes his teaching methodology, oblivious to the fact that he’s admitting to subjecting his students to psychological abuse and bullying (for their own good, of course, to make them less shitty people).
Whatever the excuse for treating some students as less important or worthy than others with no relation to academic performance in the actual subject it’s still an egregious abuse of power. Just describing students by race and gender is already skating on very thin ice. To do so insists their biology is more important than their individuality, and that they are largely defined by biology. I guess Hawley didn’t get the memo that this sort of biological determinism and behaviorism was considered far too reductionist last century. But how do you embrace discrimination without biological determinism?
Young white men mansplaining to the class that we’re “getting off topic” and that Color & Composition class is no place to discuss such heavy topics (insert life-sized eye roll emoji into classroom here).
Being cutesy and assigning an emoji doesn’t constitute a counter-argument. Besides which, it’s the students who should be rolling their eyes when their teacher spouts the most predictable identity politics in the classroom. They might prefer a vomiting emoji.
The white men are 100% correct here, and Hawley’s politics are so over-familiar that any discussion of the most academic and tedious color theory would be more fresh and thus heavy. Student’s need moralizing identity politics about as much as they need lectures on the evils of drugs, alcohol, marijuana, and sex (or Jesus) in the college classroom.
The teacher needs to leave his agenda at the door. It is the role of the university to give the students the tools to think critically, do research, be open-minded, and come to their own conclusions so that they are resistant to propaganda and indoctrination. Instead they get indoctrination and propaganda crammed down their throats with self-righteous zeal. If the teacher is using terms like mansplaining than he is showing his political bias, which he no doubt feels is so important – much more important than teaching art – that it is his moral duty to impart his wisdom on his students. In reality it is his moral duty to NOT enforce his agenda in the classroom nor teach topics that have nothing to do with the course.
The amazing thing in his article is how much he attacks his white, female students.
Young white women yelling at young black, brown, and white women and men for not allowing women to be women, while responding with the entitled conservative battle cry of “Why can’t things just be like they used to be?” and self-identifying non-binary persons break out in tears because white women have essentially told them they don’t exist.
I’m skeptical that young white women were yelling at the other students and telling non-binary people they don’t exist. And if that really DID happen, then it only happened because the teacher created an environment in which students were set against each other. He caused his students to fight, and he took sides. The important thing to notice here is how he portrays his white female students as, in a word, bad. How evil are young white women! Why, any punishment is surely deserved! Or not. I think not.
We could have the exact same discussions and fights in any and every class by raising the same topics with the thinnest veneer of justification. Surely if identity politics is an overwhelmingly important topic in an art class, taking precedence over art, the same would be true in a music, theater, film, writing, English, history, and sociology class… If I were in his class and it was my turn to mansplain, I’d say, “We already learned this shit in Economics, Accounting, Geography, and Swimming. It’s like the F’ing ‘Pledge of Allegiance’. I don’t need it in every god-damned class.”
What does it mean for a teacher to call out his students as anti-feminist, anti-non-binary persons in an article written for public consumption?
This is how the teacher justifies teaching firebrand identity politics in his art class:
Everything is too charged not to play out in a classroom — especially one devoted to exploring cultural assumptions, ideas, and values surrounding colors, be they pink, purple, red, blue, whatever.
The reason everything is so charged is because even art teachers are pouring gasoline on it and publishing articles about why they are heroes for doing so. And you’d think a color theory teacher could name a couple more colors. Is that really the class description? It’s not about mixing colors, additive and subtractive color, actual theory about literal color, as well as less overtly politicized psychological and symbolic aspects of color? It’s really about race, gender, privilege, and, to be honest, putting the white students in their proper, subordinate place, according to his own revolutionary agenda?
Dear readers. If you are not aware of this, many, many people consider art and identity politics inseparable, if not synonymous, or else that art is completely subordinate to the imperatives of identity politics. In fact, it doesn’t even occur to them that this might not be the case. This is what we have with Mr. Hawley (and the editor and some of the writers featured at Hyperallergic). I suppose at one time religion was synonymous with art, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent for this kind of fusion of things that do not necessarily go together at all. In the present day it is specifically one’s agenda relative to identity politics that gets ones article published, ones art shown, or lands one the job teaching Color and Composition at a university. And I can assure you many people will be very certain I am the bad guy for not accepting this or going along with it.
Hawley has publicly shamed his students. He didn’t name them, but what are these expendable, deplorable white women students supposed to think about their portrayal in this article? Further, if his mission was to teach students sociology, and they didn’t learn from him but stuck by their uninformed views, than he’d be a crap sociology professor. Would it be their failure or his? More accurately, he failed to persuade art students with his political agenda, and now he faults them for not agreeing with him. Ripe!
Hawley set up his students for his art class version of the Hunger Games.
The students in my Color & Composition course had been divided into study groups in which they extensively explored a single hue.
I’d know I was F’d right then and there. What the hell color is it safe to choose? Not white! I’d be a white supremacist in a millisecond. Not black! I’d be a cultural appropriationist at best, and a colonizer and enslaver of black bodies at worse. No matter what color you choose there’s a way to insert identity politics into it, and if you’re white, you’re gonna get shit on. My favorite color is green, but that’s just going to mean money and capitalism, and I’m a capitalist pig, then just a pig. You can’t possibly not lose.
[I once had a graduate art seminar in which the teacher counseled us why to not be overly upset about white men: “Are you going to hate a pig for your whole life?” As the only white male in my graduate class I didn’t miss how this made me look.]
Here’s how things devolved in Hawley’s classroom. Some white girls chose pink, and they brought a bunch of pink stuff and set it up on a gray bookshelf almost like a display window. Predictable. But do we have to mete out the equally predictable sort of punishment the caricature of a sadistic ideologue would inflict? Yes we do.
In discussion, however, they were called out by several students who noted how much privilege the items represented and how easily they enforced stereotypes of femininity. The pink group felt appalled and attacked.
And here Hawley should have wondered if students feeling appalled and attacked should really be a desirable eventuality in a college classroom. How old are these women, I wonder? Are they freshman? Are they under 30? Under 25? We know that Hawley agrees that they enforced stereotypes, in which case those students were not only attacked by their peers, but with the approval of their instructor. Their crime? They associated pink with femininity. Big deal.
The solution isn’t an intervention that causes a crisis in the classroom and scars the students for life. This is social engineering with power tools. We could find much more positive, much less adversarial ways of expanding students’ horizons. If your attitude towards your students is no pain, no gain you are probably a vicious A-hole. I, for one, never needed or benefited from tough
hate love in a classroom.
Note to asshole teachers. You will find that your students will progress much faster if you support them and nurture them. Pitting them against each other based on biology, praising and elevating one group while shooting down another, is going to shut them down, make them hate education, and plant seeds of smoldering resentment which you cannot then blame them for.
What ensued was a pink backlash — a Barbie-centric final project championing outdated ideas of pre-packaged femininity, promoting doll-like presentations of women in traditional roles, reflecting a world where women were women and men, men.
I guarantee that if I were teaching this same class those white women would not have double-downed on pinkness in defiance. There is a more gentle way of easing up people’s more calcified conclusions without attacking and humiliating them. His method was sure to backfire, and apparently did. Instead of teaching his students what they needed to know about color for their art careers, he forced a group of them to identify with pink out of stubborn defensiveness.
And if my students really wanted to do work around pink, I’d let them, and without insisting on my foregone conclusions. I’d encourage them to explore other aspects of the color if some of their associations were simplistic or reductionist. I’d assume they might bring something to the table I hadn’t thought of or was outside of my range of experience. I wouldn’t make pink off limits to girls and automatically only associate it with the most deleterious traits. If some girls like femmie stuff and wanna’ be moms, that’s their choice. Who am I to tell them otherwise? Well, this is assuming I wasn’t lobotomized and taught how to teach in a re-education camp.
Hawley compares his students to Donald Trump, and so blames the victims of his own bullying.
Distilled into a color-class-instant, a microcosm of our larger American moment emerges, propagated and unleashed by Trump, the greatest victim in recent American history. The oppressor assumes the role of the oppressed, the privileged embraces the victim syndrome. The crux of the pink group’s emotionally charged reaction was “I have to apologize for offending everyone else, but no one has to apologize for offending me.” Their beliefs ranged from “To get attention now you have to be gay or trans or a ‘them’” to “There’s a woman and a man and there’s nothing else.” The grievance here is simple: “I am being oppressed”; “my voice is not being heard”; I am not allowed to be who I am.”
In reality, Hawley punished these students in his classroom and continues to do so in this article, apparently clueless of the flagrant hypocrisy. Students in his class felt that they had to apologize, publicly, to the other students?! They felt this was discriminatory, and reacted in an emotionally charged way?! Note here that while Hawley celebrates his incredibly intelligent, unapologetic young black women, his young white women are required to be apologetic, and then slammed for thinking something smells fishy. That there is a two all beef double standard special hypocrisy on an ideology bun, sir. Students felt that they were being oppressed, not being heard, and “not allowed to be who I am” in his classroom?! And he’s faulting THEM?!
And here, I think we know what Hawley believes. Those young white women are privileged in society, entitled, everything revolves around them, and it’s the marginalized minorities who are being oppressed and not allowed to express themselves, obviously. Therefore it’s his job to correct this in the classroom by reversing the roles, Jane Elliott style. Instead of abandoning all favoritism and discrimination, he enlists it as a presumed cure.
He believes that along with his young black women students he is on the right side of history and fighting the oppressor — his young white women students. To an outsider he is the oppressor, practicing oppression in his class and congratulating himself for it. His mentality is the same as someone who employs violence in the name of ending violence, and does it against people who aren’t directly guilty of violence. He is practicing retributive oppression on innocent students entrusted to his care. FAIL!
[As I said, I have a lot of experience being on the receiving end of this kind of art “instruction”. I had a black teacher who taught us only about black issues, and who one fine evening lectured us about how he didn’t have any black students (among the 10 of us), and how he didn’t want to teach white students. Students cowered and apologized for not being black. I just sat there like a statue. Based on my appearance, I was the prime enemy, and I was indeed singled out for especially abusive treatment on another occasion. I probably don’t have to tell you to imagine if any other instructor told any other students he or she didn’t want to teach them because of their biology at birth, and how ridiculously F’d up that would be.]
Hawley’s got some sort of acrobatic feat of logic to support his particular use of flagrant discrimination. According to Hawley, because Donald Trump see’s himself as a victim of the media, etc., than if Hawley’s students feel victimized by him then they are like Trump. Uh, no. If anyone is like Trump, it’s Hawley. He’s the one with power over the students and complaining that they are the victimizers. No, bud, it is not part of your job to teach students life lessons via the mode of suffering.
I’ve taught students English for most of a decade in Asia, from little kids to college students, and I would be horrified if ANY of my students ever felt attacked, appalled, oppressed, and like they couldn’t speak in one of my classes. Students should not be seen as the enemy because of their social beliefs or orientations (you might imagine Chinese students’ views don’t exactly match mine), especially when those only become apparent when one goes digging for them with a serrated knife. Meanwhile, this guy sets up painfully obvious traps in which he has assured victims who he can harangue and humiliate, and then he goes public with his disgust with those same students. And this is art education?! Shiiiiiit.
Even if the students held backwards views or believed outmoded stereotypes, that would not be a reason to abuse them in the classroom. When I am a teacher I consider it my role to nurture and protect my students, not take them to task for being insufficiently socially aware according to my beliefs. Even if the class was “ethics” and I adhered to the cartoonish world-view of Hawley — with its easy villains and scapegoats — it would not be my place to to try to teach students life lessons in the school of hard knocks within academia. They should be allowed to express their ideas without fear of being alienated or belittled, and not have to worry about the teacher writing arguments about how deficient and deplorable they are, and how incredibly intelligent the other students are.
If you are a teacher and concerned that your students might not treat other people fairly in society, the best thing you can do is treat all your students fairly as a role model. This is precisely what Hawley didn’t do. And that brings me to a little anecdote.
When I was teaching English at a university in China I used to play ping-pong with my students on campus. One day a male Chinese teacher asked me why I was so nice to such ugly girls. I said that I didn’t care what they looked like, I cared if they raised their hands, or if they smiled. Besides which, I didn’t see them as ugly. “They can have you for two years, and then nobody will treat them like that again” he said. Here, simply by treating all my students the same I was apparently a maverick on the campus. True, I also taught custom lessons on Obama’s mother and Muhammad Ali (I was told I should teach American culture as well as English), but it was to expose students to interesting ideas and conflicts, not to enforce beliefs.
This university teaching experience perhaps made some things painfully obvious to me that might elude others. There were two sorts of problem-teachers Chinese universities were concerned about. One was evangelists who felt it was their duty to save Chinese souls in the their English classes, and would bring Bibles and other religious materials into the classroom. My own students told me about prior teachers doing this. Number two were the teachers who felt they needed to convert Chinese students away from Communism and into Capitalism, or otherwise criticized the Chinese government in the classroom. It was easy to understand why Chinese government schools wouldn’t want either of those kinds of teachers, and why us English teachers should just teach English and not try to convert the students. I can easily apply this to art classes.
Hawley used his color and composition class as an arena for promulgating his political agenda and converting a captive audience. His failure to do so is echoed in his concluding paragraph in which he quotes one of his resistant students referencing the Bible. We are supposed to gain from this how backwards they are, but we may also notice he’s mocking their religion, and the double standard by which he would not tolerate mocking another closely related religion.
This is not art education, it is hazing recruits into an ideological army. Instead of learning about art, the teacher thought it was much more urgent to instruct them in social justice. In reality, he subjected them to a painful lesson in social injustice. I received a lot of precisely this sort of instruction in my art education, and I can safely say it’s taken me decades to recover. The college where Hawley teaches should dismiss him immediately — if for no other reason than that he is not mortified that his own students suffered humiliation because of his steering from the curriculum. His greater crime is subjecting students to social experiments of his own devising. Hyperallergic, for its part, should be ashamed to have published such sadistic garbage [though they seem to love that sort of thing].
It’s a travesty that this is what art education has devolved into, and that it gets a stamp of approval from the art world. This isn’t art instruction, it is a war on art. As an artist my response to Hawley and Hyperallergic is, let me get the appropriate emoji…
And just because some of you agree with Hawley’s and Hyperallergic’s political agenda and paradigm doesn’t mean instilling it in an art class isn’t as F’d up as hitting the students over the head with Jesus or a pro-Trump narrative. Politics, like religion, has no place in the classroom outside of a Politics or Religion class. It’s also the crutch of someone who doesn’t know how to teach art proper.
If you don’t agree than you will have to argue why identity politics or a pro-Trump narrative should be taught in a music theory class. I realize that as ridiculous as such a prospect seems to me, what I am saying seems ridiculous to the other side. Imagine living in China during the Cultural Revolution and suggesting that Communism has no place in an art class, especially if non-conformists or people who refuse to agree are ostracized and then humiliated in a Red Guard newspaper. That’s what I’m doing here.
I’m saying that if you think your political agenda is so important, urgent, and encompassing that it needs to be preached in all classrooms in order to fight the dangerous enemy, including the enemy among the students — the enemy you write about in an article — chances are that you have become the real enemy.
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