- Oliver Parini
- Jonathan Silverman
Jonathan Silverman has lived a life of creative engagement — not as a lone artist but as a prolific proponent for the role of art in life and learning. After completing his doctoral studies in aesthetic education at the University of Vermont, Silverman became a professor at Saint Michael's College in 1995, where he is currently chair of the school's education department and coordinator of the arts education program.
Silverman is retiring at the end of this year, and not without notice: In March, he traveled to Seattle to be recognized as the 2018 Vermont Art Educator of the Year by the Vermont Art Teachers Association and the National Art Education Association.
Though Silverman, 66, was raised with ample exposure to art and music, it was a fortuitous undergraduate encounter with the UVM ceramics studio that led him down the path to arts education. Defecting from his plan to become a lawyer, he instead pursued his creative passions.
"[Jonathan's] approach to aesthetics has really opened our teachers' eyes to the arts and the power of the arts," said fellow St. Michael's art educator Ann Joppe-Mercure, who nominated Silverman for his award. "His influence is extraordinary in this state: His approach has pretty much trickled down to almost every student in [Vermont]."
Seven Days spoke with Silverman in his cheerful, art-bedecked office about his career and about art as a tool for empathy and engagement.
SEVEN DAYS: For those unfamiliar with aesthetic education, how would you describe it?
JONATHAN SILVERMAN: It's broader than art. It's really looking at our ability to raise our perception, our sense of sensibility, our keenness in noticing things — how things are juxtaposed with each other, their shapes and subtleties — and to care about not only each other but also about nature and the environment.
[Philosopher, psychologist and education reformer] John Dewey is one of my heroes, and he talks a lot about art as experience. I think what he was talking about was that each of us has the capacity to bring out our artistic side, and, in this case, our aesthetic side.
[Aesthetics are] mostly associated with beauty, let's not leave that aside. But [aesthetic education] is not This is beauty, and this isn't beauty. It's more of a process of noticing what is. It's a work-in-progress to notice the things that are beautiful outside of ourselves, and then to incorporate them into ourselves. And that's why it's hooked into diversity and into our sense of imagination, empathy and problem posing, as well as problem solving.
SD: So, would you say it's really a broadening of the discipline of art in an effort to make it more applied?
JS: Yes, it's almost giving [art] more moral responsibility and more of a global perspective — and empowering ourselves to not necessarily think, Oh, we have to be on a pedestal and call ourselves an artist to participate in an aesthetic experience.
SD: Can you talk a little about your trajectory to becoming an art educator?
JS: I was on track to be a lawyer. A dear friend of mine [in] my sophomore year said, "Hey, I'm taking this ceramics class. Why don't you come down?" And that was it. I basically did this incredible 180, shifted my whole focus.
SD: Do you remember what it felt like in the ceramics studio?
JS: I felt like I came home. Obviously, doing ceramics on the wheel is centering. I felt like there was this process of centering all of this exposure I had in the art world, but never had a place to pocket it or bring it out. At that time, I couldn't become an art minor — it was just too weird. So I said that I was going to become a political cartoonist, and that was the only way I could convince my political science adviser to allow me to take all these other art courses.
I got my master's degree in counseling, but my thesis was counseling artistic students. [Later] I came back and got into the doctoral program at UVM. My focus was on art, but tangentially I got into interdisciplinary creative work with the idea that, too often, art is isolated. If you want to get injected with creativity and imagination, just go down the hall, and you'll see this messy room, and you get all this stuff, [but] then you have to leave and come back and do serious stuff.
I just felt this is not the way education needs to be, this is not Dewey's image of what's possible. It's tough, because we live in a very standardized world, and the expectations of behavior are not particularly conducive to the kind of environment where creativity soars. Arts are messy. They're timeless. They're hard to assess.
SD: What have you seen as your biggest challenge or challenges?
JS: One big challenge would be that when people refer to literacy, they don't refer to arts as literacy even though arts is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, forms of literacy that exists on the planet. And that's where I need — and I think all of my colleagues in the arts world have the same challenge — to convince their colleagues and administrators of the value of the arts.
At the more microscale is taking people's paradigms, where they're not used to a more subjective way of learning, and making it valid. That could be in terms of, how do you assess the arts? That's an ongoing thing. I think a big challenge is to take away the polarizing feeling of You're either an artist, or you're not an artist, because I think that's detrimental to learning.
We've built a lot of different structures to prevent the kind of acceptance of more of an aesthetic approach. We standardize things; we structure our schools in certain ways; we structure our curriculum in certain ways. I think that's something that people like me are always struggling against.
The concept of grading really gets in the way. The value of arts in terms of diversity is that ... you have everybody interpreting the project in their own way, and you have 20 examples. There's the power of seeing somebody else's work and appreciating it that allows you to become more understanding of that person. You're developing empathy by recognizing that this person is expressing something that's very real and very personal. And then there's also the authenticity of communicating about the art, and that's really hard. It's hard because we've made it hard.
But I think, ultimately, it's a wonderful way to stretch one's understanding of other people and to be able to communicate better, to use language in effective ways. I see that as an ongoing struggle. Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges we have in life is, how do we learn to live together? And I truly believe that, through the arts, we can learn to live together better.