I’ve just completed the first leg of my European crusade: a week in Switzerland. Basel is a lovely medieval city along the Rhine right on the edge of Germany and France. It’s home to loads of banks and pharmaceutical corporations and two dozen museums — some with extremely contemporary contemporary art, one which is the size of a doorway.
I’ll tell you more about my visit to the city in another post. Today I’ll just try to summarize why I was there.
Last winter, I was invited to be an artist-in-residency at the International School of Basel this September. Perhaps you remember that a year ago, I was in residency at another ISB (the International School of Beijing) and had a lovely and illuminating time, so this invitation was very welcome. I was pumped to spend more time with kids, making art, and wallowing in their creative energy. Additional pluses: I’ve never been to Switzerland and, of course, Basel is a mecca for art.
My week began with a school assembly. Six hundred children under the age of 11 sat on the ground while I introduced myself and talked about all we would do in the week ahead.
Then each morning at 8:15, I’d let a couple hundred kids and their teachers into my gigantic office/studio/lecture hall and showed them films and gave them creative assignments. We drew breakfast and lunch and shoes and upside-down bicycles and portraits and more. We made enormous murals that covered all the halls and stair wells. We ended the week with a sprawling field trip to the natural history museum to draw dinosaurs and endangered animals and then drew the cathedral and the twisting medieval streets.
It didn’t stop in my classroom. The kids went home at night mad for drawing. Each morning, moms and dads came into the school with stories of kids transformed. They filled up sketchbooks at home, drew with their parents and teachers, insisted that nobody eat their dinners until they had been drawn.
After school on Tuesday, I met with all the teachers and showed them how art had opened my eyes. I told them that art is not just for art class — it’s for learning about the world and can be applied to any discipline, from literature to social studies to science to music to gym. I pulled out examples of my travel journals, of my investigations into homelessness, fishing in Manhattan, and dogs in coats. I showed them my maps and Koosje’s recipes and the SBS students’ instruction manuals.
The next day, an inspired math teacher asked her 4th graders to make drawings that explain the concept of ’rounding up’ numbers. She showed me dozens of stories and watercolors the kids made in response to her assignment. They were all different, all clear, all beautiful. She was able to see how well they understood the concept and they could use their pieces to teach the 3rd graders this concept.
On Thursday evening, I met with the parents and told them why I had come to Basel and why I thought it mattered that their kids had started keeping illustrated journals.
It was to prepare them for the future — not a future as professional artists necessarily, but as successful people in an ever-changing world. The days of being able to assume that a well-educated person could finish school, get a corporate job, and rise up the ladder till retirement, are over. Instead, kids need to be prepared for the unforeseeable. Technology is upending every industry, traditional jobs are withering while new opportunities are springing up in surprising places. Change is the constant. Kids need to learn to swim in it.
Parents can no longer assume that a traditional education in math, science, literature, language and history will be enough prepare a child for the future. A crucial new skill will be the ability to think creatively. That doesn’t mean dabbling in fingerpaints, but knowing how to spark innovations, to develop ideas, to present them clearly and persuasively, to find resources and collaborators to bring them to fruition, to build networks, to be entrepreneurial. I told them that’s why I supported my own son’s plan to go to art school, so he could learn skills I think will be essential to his future. If he had majored in English or pre-med, I wouldn’t have the same sense of confidence that I had given him the necessary tools.
I told them that they should look at art not just as a sign of being cultured, a middle-class luxury, but as a key component of their children’s total education. I suggested they insist the school’s administration support and look for ways to incorporate art and creativity into all aspects of the curriculum.
If a student is encouraged to look everywhere for inspiration, to combine ideas into new ones, to replace competition with collaboration, to accept mistakes and ambiguity and learn from them, to have faith in the creative process, to know how to overcome its pitfalls, only then will he or she be prepared for a world full of self-driving cars, delivery drones, mobile apps, and Donald Trump.
Knowledge alone is no longer power — it’s something that pops up in your browser. Knowing how to use that knowledge to create new ideas and solve new problems, that will be the source of true power, a power that will serve all mankind.