Delivered on April 27th, 2017, Samek Distinguished Art Lecture, Bucknell University
I remember that walk to the Art Barn, alone on the narrow path between the cemetery and the Field House. On some winter days, after a quiet evening snow, I walked by scattering glittering powder into the morning sun. I could have chosen to walk on an easier path, the paved walkways next to then the soccer field that already had been plowed by diligent Bucknell groundskeepers. Instead, I walked that path up the hill, literally between life and death, all alone, trudging and intentionally going the slower, less efficient way.
What is education? What do we learn in classrooms, in such a walk up the hill, in life, even in death? I used to think that one’s life could be summed up in a single narrative—that somehow, we could capture a life by retelling a linear series of events, as in an obituary. But now, some thirty years after my time here in Lewisburg, I think that we may do injustice to our lives if we only think in linear, analytical fashion. We also need to remember that the tracks we may have paved, ends up as meandering, pioneering, inventing, struggling paths uniquely given to us. Perhaps the complexity of liberal arts education can truly liberate us, and bring us into a deeper knowledge of that meandering journey uniquely given to us.
What is education? When we come to a place like Bucknell, we may assume that this is a place to learn, so we rarely ask that epistemological question. As an artist, my role is to ask questions that no one can answer; so I ask not only “what is education?” but move deeper to ask “what is knowledge?” Philosophers can ask this question rationally and analytically, but I am going to approach it intuitively and imaginatively.
I have been asking this question through my art and my writings ever since Bucknell. I’ve learned a few things along the way. Yet, I continue to walk in that liminal space between death and life in my art and in my writings. I trudge a path between life’s vibrant evidence of joy and the disappearing memories of death.
You know the play Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. It’s a simple play, but also haunting. Remember Emily, one of the central characters? In Act 1 she is a teenager. In Act 2 she marries. In Act 3 she is … in that liminal path. Rows of chairs on the stage are occupied by actors playing the spirits of the dead. Emily is one of them; she has just died. “Just for a moment, now, we’re all together,” Emily says. “Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” “I can’t,” she continues—“I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another…I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave.”
Emily’s soliloquy in Our Town takes us back. Theatre and the arts take us “up the hill”—between life and death, between hopes and disappointments, and between where we are and where we will be.
The Latin root of the word “educate” is “educere”. It means to care, to draw out what is already in the student’s soul to a higher level. It is to pause and to look at one another. What I call “Culture Care”—to see culture as an ecosystem of beholding, rather than a war zone of demonizing each other—has a lot to do with edu-cere.
Recently, my father passed away. He was a renowned speech and hearing scientist. I was born in Boston as he completed his post-doctoral research at MIT, working with a guy named Noam Chomsky. My father brought Chomsky’s “generative grammar” theory back to Tokyo University. In what is a typical scenario for an Asian home, though, I did not know my father that well as a small child. When I began to attend Bucknell, he would drive me three hours to Lewisburg and three hours back. I got to know my father in those three-hour drives. I asked him questions about his research, and our family lineage. He would ask me about my interests. I remember telling him, after about a year of thinking about my future at Bucknell, that I wanted to try to make it as an artist. “Oh, that’s great!” my father said to me. “That’s what I wanted to become.”
What we may become, and what we seek to learn, may be heavily predicated upon the generations before us. Perhaps I would not have been an artist if it were not for a scientist who wanted to become an artist. Knowledge is linked to love as surely as death is linked with life.
Is that true? I am wondering if it is. I am wondering if indeed knowledge is part of our expression of love. In the Hebrew Bible, Song of Songs tells us that “love is as strong as death.” Was my intuitive walking on the path between the graveyard and the Field House in part my exploration and discovery of a certain kind of love?
In order to know anything, you have to love the subject. I am speaking of a way of knowledge that is deeper than, let’s say, informational knowledge. I am speaking of a type of knowledge that moves beyond the borders of classrooms, beyond the borders of categories, of disciplines, of the correct answers you gave on exams, or your grades or your accomplished résumés. I am speaking of art (and sciences) and the rigors of our journey toward excellence, and I am speaking of that path that no one else dares to walk upon.
I am speaking of knowledge that moves us so deeply that we take the long and arduous path to get there. I am speaking of the fading memories that we whisper about on our deathbeds. I am speaking of love that is comprehensive. The Greeks identified several types of love, including philia, the love of friendship; eros, sexual love; storge, affectionate love; and agape, sacrificial love. When I speak of “love” I am speaking of all of these definitions.
What will we remember as our lives draw to a close? I thought about that as I watched my father fall asleep—tired from our thirty minutes of deep conversation, the last conversation we had—a week before he slipped away peacefully into eternity.
At times like that, we do not speak of what we earned or boast of our accomplishments. These liminal moments are sacred, and they are impossible to categorize, or even describe fully. They certainly cannot be packaged and marketed. As I sat beside my father I thought of those three-hour drives with him from New Providence, New Jersey to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania on Route 80. I thought of that journey I made alone over and over up the hill to the Art Barn, stepping on the snowy bank in between life and death. Art and poetry get at these indescribable moments, what the Celts called “Thin Places,” margins of experience where angels may dwell. It occurred to me as I sat with my father that I am drawn to the liminal, where the dead still speak in our awakened imaginations. That walk may have determined my destiny. But no, I was not alone. I came to love that walk because I felt close to those whom I love.
Where, then, do art, knowledge and love connect? I want to share with you a passage from my next book I am working on, which is called Theology of Making. In it, I give several examples of how we have misplaced the kind of deep knowledge that the arts can reach. My philosopher friend Esther Meek says we all need “epistemological therapy” to move away from false dichotomies set up in our modern and postmodern way of knowing. I’m going to read to you several examples that can lead us onto such a path.
Jacques Pépin’s Omelette
I held three fresh eggs, still warm, in my hands. Our farm has chickens, so we now have fresh eggs. I want to make the best omelette possible with the fresh eggs. So I did some research and came up with YouTube videos of Jacques Pépin making omelettes. Have you seen Jacques Pépin, the master French chef, make an omelette? No matter how many times one watches the video, or reads the recipe, one discovers how difficult it is to make a simple omelette. A recipe for an omelette is as simple as it can get. But the information on how to make one does not readily translate into the actual making of the thing.
In other words, there is a huge gap between the informational knowing and actual knowing of making. The same can be applied to education. There is a huge gap between knowing pedagogical concepts and the actual practice of knowing.
Philosopher Esther Meek states in her book Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology:
“If knowing is care at its core, caring leads to knowing. To know is to love; to love will be to know.”
Thus, caring and loving are the fundamental parts of the act of making. To make is also to know through our acts of love—to love the act of creativity that taps into the greater reality behind materials and the body. Jacques Pépin’s omelette is impossible to make because it is the taste of a lifetime of knowing and “loving” the egg.
Dating with Unicorns
My eldest son grew up in an environment of creativity and the arts. Having a father for an artist in New York City, kids very quickly reach a saturation level in attending openings and cultural events. By the time my two boys were 13 they would roll their eyes when I asked them if they wanted to go to a gallery or museum.
When my eldest began to date a girl he met on a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, I asked him where he might consider taking her. He replied, “Oh, the Cloisters, of course.” The Cloisters is one of my favorite places. Located in the northern end of New York City, this extension of the Metropolitan Museum dedicated to medieval art has been my inspiration, from the quince trees in the medieval courtyard overlooking the Hudson River, to the famed Unicorn Tapestries. So I asked him what he was going to show her.
“Oh, the Unicorn Tapestries, of course.”
Apparently my son was listening to me when I took him there, though he really seemed to want to throw a baseball then, rather than listen to my lecture on the significance of “The Hunt for the Unicorns” Tapestries. I am grateful for the Unicorn Tapestries. Love demands creativity; love draws out our call to know and to make. You do not take someone out on a date and offer to do plumbing (unless you are plumbers); you do not take someone out on a date to talk about accounting rules. You need beauty, you need art to love.
The art of education, or edu-cere, must be to draw upon this reality of love, or to answer the demands of love. It draws upon what Dante surmised: “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Even an omelette can indicate the abundance of the Love embedded in creation. Creating a good omelette demands more than a recipe, or informational knowledge. Creating anything good requires artistry. Art is moved by that Love.
Does that make sense? Are you convinced? I hope I have persuaded you that somehow love is connected with knowledge. But there’s a problem.
Love is difficult. Love seems inaccessible at times; or perhaps we thought we had beheld Love’s glory and she slipped away from us in a tragic manner. Love may even be considered an impossibility. Is true, integrated knowledge impossible, too? Is the ideal of a Bucknell education an impossibility?
Imagine being stranded on a remote island. Before long, you begin get to hungry for food. That hunger is proof that we need something called food. And in our island of alienation, our hunger for true love may yet be a proof that such love exists. A person who is trapped in injustice hungers for justice; and that may prove that there is a time for Righteousness to flow in our lives “until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (to quote, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so powerfully did, a verse from the Old Testament book of Amos). Art is a language of imagination that invokes that “mighty stream” of hope. It invigorates malnourished souls, delighting those even faced with such an impossibility.
The goal of liberal arts education, or any type of education, is to grow our imagination to know love. To love is to hope for a rejuvenated earth and to hope for the discovery of a place that we long to be. The arts need, therefore, to be integrated into all disciplines: engineering and management, farming and philosophy. Online education presents many fantastic opportunities for students, and virtual education can give you the best of convergent thinking and proficiency. But we need places in the world where divergent thinking and empathy training can happen, where the diversities of cultures and ethnicities can birth a new conversation toward re-humanized capitalism and integrated democracy. On the stage of the black box theatre, in the impossible leap of a dancer, in the poet’s calibration in quiet corners, we see this kind of new conversation. Bucknell can be, and needs to be, at the forefront of such a journey.
The end of this talk is our new beginning. May you, too, come back in thirty-some years and report back what you’ve learned. May that knowledge be generative. May that knowledge lead to love. I hope to do that as well—thirty years from now, to be back here again to share what I’ve learned. Bucknell offers a unique setting to provide a path toward such unusual generative intersections, in ways that can only be grounded in a place in Amish country called Lewisburg. I wrote about the Amish path of Love in an essay in my first book. Let me end by reading this account (with some recent modifications), reminding all of us that such a love, and tragic beauty, we can still come to know in this world. This essay was written in my “Ground Zero loft” in New York City, three blocks from where the Twin Towers used to stand.
(Our Ground Zero journeys) leave visible scars in culture. The battle is about the imaginative territories of hope against fears, the sacrifice of love against a misplaced devotion, the anger of revenge against forgiveness. It is a battle that rages in the minds of youths as they negotiate the labyrinth of a techno frenzied universe, sharing a communion of broken promises. When the manifestation of such collateral damage ambushes us, like in the pastoral Amish landscapes, or in Littleton, Colorado in 1998, in a high school named after a delicate wildflower, (or a grade school in Newtown, on the finishing line of the Boston Marathon) we are astonished.
John Hewett, then the development director of the National Endowment for the Arts, who also happens to be an ordained minister, told me a poignant story. When evil struck the sleepy Amish community near Lancaster in 2006, when a gunman/milkman systematically shot girls one by one, there was a hidden story, in what he called “A Miracle Nobody Noticed.” He wrote:
“I’m convinced most of us get through most days without thinking about God much. I was having one of those days a few weeks ago, until I heard about Marian and Barbie Fisher, two of the ten girls in the West Nickel Mines Amish School. Marian, the oldest, was 13. Her sister Barbie, who lived, is 11. When it became obvious what was about to happen that ghastly morning, Marian turned to the killer and said, ‘Shoot me and leave the other ones loose.’ ‘Shoot me next,’ Barbie said. ‘Shoot me next.’”
Two children willing to lay down their lives for their friends. Wonder where they got an idea like that? That’s another miracle nobody noticed.”
Perhaps a new renaissance will be birthed out of the “mouths of babes” like these: “shoot me and leave the other ones loose.”…The girl did not complain that “this is unfair,” or argue, “this is unjust:” she just said “shoot me.”
Such fragile, but heroic, voices in the face of violence can easily be ignored, or simply not audible with our doomed ears. It certainly did nothing to stop a milkman from unloading his anger by pulling the trigger. Perhaps such otherworldly gestures look as pathetic, or beautiful, as the string quartet that played on as the Titanic sank. But I submit to you that here, in a miracle nobody noticed, is a bugle call also directed towards us artists. It begins in a belief that our lives are to be lived for others. Arts should let “the other ones loose” from the bondage of decay, apathy and loss. To the extent we are able to do that, to that degree we will see a new language of expression that is not self-centered, but self-giving and generous. Yes, I believe that art can, and ought to, exist apart from wars and violence. But in only place where this has been the case in the history of the world, a place called Eden where a poet named Adam dwelled, is today hidden inaccessibly beneath, or above, the rubble of Iraq…
In Jesus’ realism of “these things must happen first (but the end will not come right away),” (Luke 21:9) he was also reminding us that our sacrifice, either for justice or against injustice, would not be the last word. Our efforts, however noble, will not end the root cause of injustice, our true Ground Zero conditions. But we are all given a call for self-sacrifice nevertheless. None are exempt, not even a pacifist thirteen-year-old secluded as far away from Iraq or Syria as humanly possible. And Jesus knows, first hand, what it means to die an unjust death without picking up a stone, or a spear. Instead, he continues to breathe life into us in our funerary songs…
These girls knew love: or perhaps it may be said that the Greater Love knew them. True knowledge is what we confess in facing the reality of Death. What is education? What does it mean to know love? How is your love manifested in this place called Bucknell? Who dares to walk in the liminal path, up the hill, between life and death? Perhaps it is in that liminal path that one can hear and recognize the invisible, ignored voices that are “not audible with our doomed ears”.
These layers of thoughts and challenges I want to dedicate to the memory of the professors that has had tremendous influence over my life here at Bucknell, including Prof. Michael Payne, Prof. Jack Wheatcroft, and Prof. Karl Patten, as well as to my own father. The three hour rides to Bucknell have grown generatively into the world as I continue to probe into the depth of mystery of the Art of Education.