Arts education: we shall overcome

August 8, 2003: HELSINKI, Finland: Here to deliver a speech at a somewhat surreal UNESCO conference on cross-border cooperation in the field of arts in education, one of the prep meetings for the 2006 world summit on arts education in Portugal.

The organizer, Tintti Karppinen, is a marvelously eccentric and deeply committed Finnish drama teacher. She tried to break the ice (something the Finns are good at, one imagines) by getting us all to hold hands and sing We Shall Overcome. Well, you can picture the reluctance of some of the visiting Paris and Lisbon UNESCO bureaucrats in their handsome suits.

But she kept at us, pushing us to cross our own borders—she had us performing our dreams and nightmares for each other throughout the conference—and we ended by holding hands again and singing a new version of We Shall Overcome complete with new lyrics in her own fractured English.

The fact that no one pointed out the challenged language, but sang along with gusto, was a sign not only of the value of the kind of work that’s done to integrate the arts with learning—process drama, you might call it—but also of the goodwill and generosity of spirit that the gathering generated.

This was also my introduction to Dan Baron Cohen, a Brazil-based drama teacher in a flowery Hawaiian shirt who was influenced by, among others, an apprenticeship with the playwright Edward Bond in his search for “community-based cultural action for justice.” (According to the unsubstantiated circulating rumour—these conferences seem to run on them—he is a son of Leonard Cohen.)

His earnest introductory material talked a lot of bollocks about a “pedagogy of cultural literacy” and a “poetics of transformance” but his presentation was limpidly clear. Much of the work that he and his dazzlingly gorgeous Brazilian wife Mano do revolves around the plight of Brazil’s underprivileged minorities, and they showed us a documentary record of their work helping landless peasants create, from the mud up, a collective mosaic. It took them 18 months and gave many of the participants, for the first time, a sense of belonging and ownership of something they had made themselves.

At the end of the conference Tintti invited a group of us to her cottage in the woods outside Helsinki. She pulled out a box of musical instruments, handed them round, and we spent the evening making music together. Even the Paris suits. Talk about cooperation over borders.



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