Sometimes School Makes People Stupid

Jackson Pollock x Morris

Jackson Pollock x My Classroom

Have you ever looked at a Jackson Pollack painting? His work has sold for upwards of $140 million. He is considered one of the most important American artists of all time. The aesthetic value of his pieces is considered revolutionary. His “techniques” are taught in art schools around the globe. I have a simple question regarding these facts: Why? Perhaps it is because sometimes school makes people stupid.


I was visiting my former professor and stayed to sit in on one of her classes. This is graduate school at one of the most prestigious universities in North America; a place filled with the so-called sharpest minds. The cream of the crop. And while my former professor discussed the dichotomy between hegemony and validation, she projected one of Jackson Pollock’s pieces onto the large screen at the front of the room. She briefly explained his significance to the art world. She asked the class to take a look at the picture and “analyze” it. She paused. And then she asked the class, so what are your thoughts on this piece? And then the room went silent. Not one student spoke. Until I couldn’t take it anymore, and even though I was only a visitor, I chimed in from the back of the room and said, this piece is bullshit!


The moment stung her, I think she was slightly disappointed that her young and gifted students sat around trying to formulate an eloquent response that would validate the work because Jackson Pollock and his significance were put into context for them. They got sucked right in. And this was supposed to be a conversation about hegemony and how it relates to how we value things! She walked her grad school students right to the water and they still didn’t know how to sip it.


About a week later, I experimented with this same activity in my fourth grade classroom. I showed them a short biography about Jackson Pollack. I explained that his work is extremely appreciated by art experts. Then, I showed them some of his most famous masterpieces. Finally, I asked them to tell me what they thought. Within seconds almost every 10-year-old had their hand up. I picked one student and she said, anyone can do that!


Now this is a bright student. Probably on a track to graduate from high school with Honors and eventually attend university. She may even one day find herself sitting in a grad school classroom. My fear is that the unapologetic, raw and accurate opinion she provided as a 10-year-old may fade away as she gets “smarter”. This is because sometimes school makes us stupid. Academic excellence is often saturated with regurgitation. Our students “progress” into robots. We say we want kids to be unique, creative and original, but we often don’t validate these ideals when we teach and assess. How ironic is it that we say we want to accept unfiltered epistemologies but we limit these expressions by not validating them in our classrooms. This is why my 10-year-old students can give me an honest answer but grad school students are thinking of a way to rationalize bogus art. It’s like we are asking our kids to think outside the box only to be constrained by a bigger box.


But thinking about that…maybe Jackson Pollock’s artwork is valuable after all?


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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