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The Cave as Classroom

By Alfonso De Falco and Jorge Nelson
The Cave as Classroom

A prehistoric tribe’s cave painting in Maros, Sulawesi, Indonesia was recently carbon-dated to approximately 40,000 years ago and is considered by some as the oldest known piece of art in existence. These ancient humans used art to express their creativity but also to teach others. Today, you can still see the painting and try to interpret what people from so many millennia ago were hoping to represent on the walls of Maros cave.
Today, in many schools, Art has been sadly neglected or even negated from the daily lives of students. Many schools have blindly swallowed the latest educational trend to increase the amount of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in school programs.
The result has been a cutting back on the time and resources allotted to Art, Music, Dance, and Drama. Even schools that are not promoting STEM justify cutting their Art offerings for “financial” reasons. But with the loss of a fully developed Art program comes a more substantial loss to the children: fewer opportunities to express and utilize their creative genius.
In ancient Greece, Socrates claimed that the saddest aspect of life at the time was that science gathered knowledge faster than society gathered wisdom. Over two thousand years later, schools around the world disseminate knowledge through textbooks and repeated tests in an effort to inculcate the academic disciplines of the curriculum and generate immediate feedback on the lessons learned. Such a focus on direct instruction does not necessarily reflect long-term outcomes. This traditional approach to education is not designed to give students enough opportunities and experiences in gathering wisdom.
With art, there is not a single right answer, and every work of art remains open to interpretation. Even after 40,000 years, we have the opportunity in Indonesia to consider a unique expression that speaks to us as vividly as it did at the time of its creation. Before the Internet came along, knowledge was a scarce commodity and teachers delivered textbook-based lessons directly to the class as a sage on the stage.
Now, however, knowledge does not come with maturity; anyone can find anything on their digital device at any time. Therefore, if we were to focus on cultivating wisdom at an early age in schools—with less emphasis on the gathering of knowledge—children may become better problem-solvers.
The teaching of wisdom through Art occurs as we allow children to use their critical thinking skills to express themselves and gain insight into their own unique creative powers. Daniel Pink writes that, to be successful in business, we should think of the new MBA as an MFA (Masters of Fine Arts), as those graduates have well developed creativity and need it today to thrive.
How might we teach wisdom in our schools? Let’s consider the Cave as a Classroom. Maros offered a quiet, artificially lit, shelter that could be considered the first classroom. Here was a place for people to gather and share their thoughts and express their hopes, dreams, and fears through storytelling by painting on the wall. The light came from a fire, which symbolizes the light of wisdom and knowledge.
Socrates also claimed that education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. Consider knowledge as the stuff to fill the vessel and the flame as the enlightenment from wisdom.
Today the vessel is overflowing from the fire hose of online information. The flame needs to burn brightly after a re-kindling by including Art as a major competency for teaching wisdom. It is not STEM we need, folks, but STEAM. The “A” is for Art. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
Mr. De Falco is a retired guidance counselor living in Bali.
Dr. Nelson is the Head of School at North Jakarta International School in Kelapa Gading.

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