The Art of a Bad Learning Environment

Feb 10, 2012

Dr. Andre Perry discusses a middle school art project gone wrong in Slidell, LA.


So what are we to learn from the Boyet Junior High School art installation, which in one case displayed an image of President Barack Obama with a bullet hole in his head? This digitally manipulated image was the low light of several political cartoons drawn by middle school students of this Slidell, Louisiana school as part of an art project that at least one concerned child and parent brought to the attention of authorities.

Since the news broke more parents have rightly demanded a full investigation as to how those images made it to the exhibit. I don’t understand how a lesson of political cartooning can roam so aimlessly in the academic woods. There’s a reason why Civics is generally taught in high school. Middle school students should be building the historical and rhetorical acumen to engage in what should be a structured conversation or project on politics. Students’ abilities to discern political discourse and/or systems are limited by the curriculums up to that point. The assignment clearly demonstrated a lack of preparedness.

If the students were prepared, then what goal was the teacher aiming for?

When I first saw some of the completed assignments, I noticed the intellectual laziness that contributed to what a teacher could not possibly consider art. Certainly, it can’t be considered worthy enough to go on a school wall. To go on the Internet and transpose a bullet hole on a random image of President Obama is clearly a nasty, regurgitated political argument of some derisive talk radio show or dinner table.

However, it’s even more disturbing for a teacher or faculty to allow this obviously loose political commentary to hang on the walls. I hope the aftermath of this incident does not devolve into a base conversation of free speech. The Boyet exhibit made clear, free speech in schools is filtered by a responsibility to maintain an environment conducive to learning. In addition, there are actual laws that prohibit speech that can incite violence particularly against elected officials and especially the President of the United States.

I hope St. Tammany School District officials conduct a learning walk at Boyet to see what other images violate common decency let alone the purpose of public schools. All institutions that consider themselves to be places of education, but in particular public institutions, have obligations to practice an idealized connection between truth, justice and community. To practice an idealized connection between truth, justice and community is to assume there is currently no perfect person, community or social system. Schools are the agents of positive change that help society work towards a more perfect union that is inclusive, civil and free from bullets.

Applaud the students, families and teachers of Boyet who understand that schools introduce free speech to intellectual rigor and civility.

However, there something we can all do to learn from this incident. Look around your child’s school. Take in the physical space of your college or university. See what’s on the walls. Who does the bronze bust immortalize? For whom are the buildings and rooms named? The physical structures that contain schools and colleges are also windows and mirrors to the values and people that communities hold dear.

If your schools’ walls say more about who you are than what we should become, then the only art that we’ve mastered is that of repeating history.