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Imagining, envisioning, and creating the unexpected

Cort Morgan

Each May, Potomac hosts Grandparents and Special Friends Day, welcoming some of our students’ favorite people to campus. In addition to spending time in classrooms and enjoying brief assemblies, the visitors have the opportunity to hear from Head of School John Kowalik and a faculty guest speaker.

At last spring’s gathering, Cort Morgan, chair of Potomac’s K-12 Art Department, spoke about the value that the arts bring to a well-rounded education and to the human experience at large. Cort’s remarks were so powerful that we wanted to share them here.

Mr. Morgan's Remarks

Good morning. We have had a wild couple of years, haven’t we? Who would have expected it? That’s our subject for the next few minutes: the unexpected. In that light, I wonder how you feel about your grandchildren’s future? We’re cutting to the chase quickly. How many of you here are mostly hopeful? How many are somewhat worried? How many are both? Yes…me, too. As we get older, we tend to recall moments that made us happy, perhaps forgetting some of the hardest times of our youth, and remembering experiences in a rosy, retrospective glow. But we also look ahead with anxiety. Are things getting better? Are they actually getting worse? Did we do enough? Are we leaving a better world than the one we inherited for our children and grandchildren? …Are we being good stewards of ideals, institutions, our government, our culture, our environment? Objective measures show that the world today is better in many ways than it was 1,000 or even 100 years ago, and yet we worry. How is the world better today? 

Worldwide, extreme poverty and hunger are diminishing, as are infant mortality, child labor, and the cost of food. On the rise worldwide are life expectancy, average height as a measure of nutrition, vaccination against lethal diseases, school attendance, literacy, and leisure time. On the decline are the total number of nuclear weapons, as well as the incidence of homicide within societies and war between societies. These are encouraging long-term trends, yet we can’t help feeling worried. Dickens got it right in his famous opening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I guess it always is, in every generation. So, what will your grandchildren, our students, need in life? And what could or should we at Potomac be doing to prepare them? It’s right that we take this work seriously. We absolutely must; there’s so much at stake, and I’m not talking just about college admissions. I’m talking about responsible citizenship, essential innovation, visionary leadership, and a better life. It’s actually very hard to predict, isn’t it, what children will need in the future? Of course, they will need a solid grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but they’ll also need fluency in a language other than English, maybe fluency in multiple spoken languages; financial literacy; computer literacy; a general understanding of scientific discoveries and of the rational scientific method. And they’ll need cultural competence. These are all excellent cognitive tools to carry along. Let’s add good physical and mental health habits, regular exercise, and the joy of athletic teamwork and competition. That’s a lot, isn’t it? Do we have time and space for anything else? Since I’m the Art Department chair, you can guess what’s coming. 

I think we must add to the toolbox imagination, vision, and creativity. These are tools, too, but they’re metacognitive tools. They’re not parcels of knowledge; they’re behaviors, habits, and processes. They don’t add any weight to the toolbox. They help us recognize and activate the best uses of all the other tools. For example, imagination, creativity, and innovation help us use the tool of financial literacy in fresh and useful ways in opportune and unexpected moments. Here’s another way to look at it. For over a million years, our hominid ancestors survived and thrived through climate changes, ice ages, volcanic catastrophes, asteroid impacts, and competition with bigger, tougher animals with a single major tool – the Acheulean hand-axe.

This was a mediumsized, tapered hunk of hard stone flaked around its margins to produce cutting edges. It was used, as circumstances demanded, as an axe, adze, grinder, scraper, knife, cleaver, mallet…you get the picture. It was so effective and long-lasting not because it was all that clever or complex, but because it was so versatile. Probably every one of our ancient relatives knew how to make one. The million-year lifetime of that stone hand-axe is explained by how many creative uses it had. So, even then, a million years ago, our kind were distinguished not by our force or by our conformity but by our flexibility and ingenuity. Then and now, our self-awareness, imagination, and collaboration can make any tool useful in unlimited ways. If these metacognitive traits are important, can you actually teach imagination, creativity, vision, ingenuity? Yes, it turns out that you can, and we do this naturally as a species, with or without school, through open-ended play. Thankfully, it’s built into our adaptive behavior. That’s good news, but the better news is that what we call school – a mindful design of sequential interrelated experiences for young people to stretch and supercharge their capabilities – also includes extremely effective ways to stretch and super-charge creativity.

That’s the greatest value of art education, K-12 and beyond. The watercolor on the refrigerator is lovable and beautiful, but it’s actually a byproduct of a deeper and more beautiful experiential search. Humans have such a long childhood – years just learning to walk and talk. We’re all familiar with white-tailed deer. Most of them live just three or four years, but they’re so beautifully adapted to life on the planet. They never use tools or build shelters, but they raise families and weather gracefully through whatever any season presents. Once they’re born, fawns can stand up in 10 minutes and walk in 10 hours. Deer are built to browse and run and, again, they’re perfectly adapted. So what’s our problem? Why does it take us 20 years to mature? Most of our long, long, long maturation is not about learning to survive on the planet. It’s not about adapting to external conditions. Our long maturation is about adapting to the internal conditions of our own largely abstract human life. It takes a long time to adapt to human society. And the arts, from the most ancient times – for 100,000 years at least – have been methods of exploring experience and shared understanding, making ideas intense, visible, audible, tangible, intellectually intriguing, and unforgettable. 

Another way of looking at it is that the arts are means of distilling and recording vital information. That sounds really dry, I know. The arts use metaphors, allusions, layered meanings, sensory impressions, and startling, non-linear thinking, just as dreams do. We have come to understand that one function of our dreams is the reconsidering and reordering of our conscious experience. They are also the cradle of our creativity. We could all say, in a matter-of-fact way, that “unprovoked destruction of innocent people is monstrous,” but Picasso’s unforgettable mural Guernica, in one shattering glance, etches it in our minds. We could say that “all mankind are brothers,” but Beethoven’s Choral Symphony makes us feel it echo, achingly, in our hearts. We could say that, “each moment of life challenges the worth of living,” but Shakespeare’s immortal framing of mortality in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be...” is infinitely more powerful. Experienced just once, these expressions can never be forgotten. 

So how do we teach the arts here at Potomac? We teach through direct experience over a period of years, in superbly resourced, purpose-built theaters, music rooms, and studios. Every Potomac teacher of the arts is also a practitioner. Does this matter? Yes, it matters a lot, because it means that everyone involved is an explorer, a participant. No passengers. The arts are neither student-centered nor teacher-centered; they are subject-centered. Every teacher is a student and every student is also a peer teacher because in art, music, and theater you can always see, hear, and feel what everyone else is doing. It’s always group learning, collaboration, a team experience. 

This brings us to another aspect of our work here in the arts and of the work of inspired gatherings through history: emergence

If you assemble a great group and give them a worthy goal or challenge, something will inevitably emerge. It won’t be quite predictable, but it will probably be amazing. Some historical examples: The American Constitution, Apple computers, and the James Webb Space Telescope were all the result of inspired group creativity. How about the first Moon landing? When I was a boy in the late 1960s, people would say, “They can put a man on the Moon, but they can’t make a decent 10-cent cigar...” Even then, I said to myself, “I think there are different teams working on those two projects.” To be clear, we do not condone smoking among children, and our creative teams at Potomac are much, much closer to the Moon team than the cigar team. 

Was art necessary in bringing about the Constitution, Apple computers, the Webb Telescope, or the Moon landing? If you think of art as ornamental, as wallpaper, then no, of course not. But if you think of art as bold, wildly exploratory design thinking, both solitary and collaborative, then, yes, that’s what brings these new things into existence – a spiritual hunger to understand and find meaning, combined with an elevated sense of innovation and invention. So if it helps you, just drop the word “art” and think of your grandchildren at Potomac taking years of imagination classes. There’s a direct line between the child mesmerized by the flood of paint colors on her paper and the adult imagining a whole new kind of image transmission. In 1931, Albert Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” And he recalled as a child wondering, “What might the universe look like if I rode on a beam of light?” Audacious, non- linear, paradigm-shifting imagination at work. 

I’ve mentioned that the creative process itself is even more valuable than any of its remarkable products. Collateral benefits of studying art include comfort in the landscape of your own imagination, including time in creative solitude; comfort with an iterative design process and learning to trust the process because it works; comfort with setting your own goals and assessing your own progress; comfort explaining and defending your original ideas in front of others; comfort collaborating in 
design teams and performance ensembles; comfort improvising in the face of the unknown; comfort revising again and again and, finally, comfort with moving on. 
Artists are restless, because they want to get on and do the next thing. Artworks are a stitching of fox tracks over freshly fallen snow. They’re an energy trace, revealing something more full and more beautiful – the fox that passed by. And if you’re a fox, why spend time gazing back at your footprints? As I said earlier, the child’s watercolor is evidence of a deeper search. The fox moves on, hunting prey, and the artist moves on, hunting ideas. Quoting Keats, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter...” 

Returning one more time to expectations. Life doesn’t give us what we want; again and again and again, it gives us what we don’t expect. Life demands that we imagine and improvise like artists, again and again and again. And, by the way, great institutions don’t give people what they want; they give people things they had never thought of, never dreamt of. So, yes, you should expect a lot from Potomac, but don’t just expect us to give you what you want. We’re not trying to frustrate you, but we might be aiming higher than you realize. Expect us to keep surprising you. Expect us to keep giving your grandchildren things that they never even thought of. Because that’s what we will need someday in the future from those same children who are now running among the trees, peering through a microscope at pond water, playing instruments on a stage. We’ll absolutely, positively need from them what we here today have never even thought of. 

Don’t you want your grandchildren, and don’t we want our graduates, to be the people in that room, someday, somewhere, who can listen, reflect, and then present the totally unexpected solution, the paradigm shift, the unimagined idea? The new formulation of a vaccine, the new concept of the cosmos, the new pathway to a just society? If you wonder whether we really need time and space for the arts, consider how much our whole species depends on imagination and innovation, and consider that all facts begin as fictions, and all deeds begin as dreams

Thank you for listening, thank you for your partnership, and thank you for coming to Potomac today.”