Beauty’s Purpose/Art’s Power

Although Jimi Hendrix proclaims: “Music doesn’t lie.  If there is something to be changed in the world, then it can only happen through music,” that transformational power is not unique to music, as readers will certainly attest.   

Long ago, Plato outlined three castes in his Republic: Producers, Auxiliaries, and Guardians.  As members of the Guardian caste, teachers nurture the intellectual, athletic, artistic, creative, altruistic aspects of their students.  The humanities enable and empower educators in that important humanitarian work, and a plethora of young adult books provide a map.  As cultural voices, these authors as artists work for the betterment of the world.

One young adult book with a strong art-as-healing motif is Catching Fire (2009) by Suzanne Collins. Through characters like Cinna, Peeta, and Katniss, Collins suggests that art has power to influence the human condition; she presents characters who use art to escape oppression and to cope with adversity.  Collins’ characters also encourage readers to question the status quo and to think critically about social issues like oppression, tyranny, and socio-economic disparity. 

As they read these words, adolescents also read their world.  Young adult books like Collins’ provide interesting and complex ideas to talk and argue about.  They supply an ideal platform for youth to notice differences, think critically, consider alternate positions, and make more informed, ethical choices.  They also prescribe art as an antidote to pain and confusion. 

When curriculums foster conversations about books that focus on humanitarian concerns, they provide the opportunity to read, to write, and to argue about issues in a relevant context.  Critical questioning exposes youth to situations that encourage a critical stance so as to inspire wisdom that might lead to an improved way of living in the world.  Wishing to steer away from controversy, teachers often hesitate to discuss contentious social issues or to conduct the conversations encouraged by critical theory pedagogy, but the process begins when teachers make stimulating materials available and allow the asking of questions. 

Of provocative texts, students will likely ask: “What is happening and how did it get this way?”  The goal is not to seek homogeneous interpretations but to welcome diversity and encourage young people to negotiate their own meaning, to argue with the interpretations of others, and to make sense of popular culture in terms of their own values. 

Looking subliminally, not etymologically, at the term humanities, a person may noticethe two words human and ties.  Separated in this way,  the term speaks of the humanities’ power to humanize us, sharing the hope that human action can solve social problems, can help us bridge differences, can help us knit the rents in the social fabric. 

Perhaps now more than ever, we need a pedagogy that integrates the critical thinking skills essential to raising social consciousness, to protocols that explore multiple views.  With wars raging across the globe, with heightened concerns about terrorism, and with a global tendency towards polarization and a demonizing of those who hold differing opinions, learning these humanizing processes might have supreme relevance and currency.  A growing body of YAL provides a core for that humanitarian learning.

Looking again at the word humanities, one notices that the letter I is nearly central.  This positioning suggests the individual’s potential role in the effort at creating human ties.  As Mahatma Gandhi directed, “I must be the change I wish to see in the world.”  When horror haunts life, whether as terrorism or violence, as upset or upheaval, the question should be, what can I do?  These authors suggest we turn to art.  Art slows us down, forces us to notice and to cherish small details, details that disaster has the power to erase. 

In 19 Varieties of Gazelle (2002), poet Naomi Shihab Nye claims: “We need poetry for nourishment and noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name” (p. xvi). 

This focus on the humanities teaches us that art’s job is not only to look nice; art has something to say.  In this role as spokesman and sage, today’s young adult books possess immense potential.  These books speak to adolescents, using their language and meeting their emotional needs as they are developing personal philosophies.  They also illustrate art’s power in the struggle against the demons in our lives; art contributes to identity development, to perspective building, and to survival.  As we expand the canon, we expand minds with the offered diversity in perspective. 

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