Lost in the Museum

IMG_0442Not long ago a colleague and I took a small group of Honors students to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. We were teaching an honors class based upon the great books of ancient Greece and Rome and we wanted to enhance our classes by getting them off campus and into a museum. The MFA has a wonderful Ancient World exhibit on permanent display, and we thought that this would really add something special to the course.

The plan was to take an hour or so and tour the Ancient World exhibit and then set the students lose for a few more hours to explore the museum on their own. I am highly conscious of the fact that nowadays in education one must attach “learning objectives” and “outcomes” to syllabi and assignments, thereby marking a clear and deliberate learning path for students. I have never felt comfortable with this kind of proscriptive pedagogy; I feel that it seriously compromises the creative and critical imagination, to say nothing of academic freedom. I also know that my reluctance may stem from my training as a poststructuralist and our disdain for any type of predetermined “outcome.” Be that as it may. When planning this trip I was intent on giving my students only one objective following our tour of the Ancient World: I instructed the students that once they had spent about an hour in the Ancient World they were to go off and “get lost” in the museum. Some of them looked at me in shock. “You mean, we can just wander around?” asked one. Yes, that was the idea. I wanted them to get lost in the museum for the rest of the afternoon.

Contrary to the belief of some administrators and legislators, not everything need be measurable when it comes to education. In fact, I argue that certain, no, most, tasks and assignments should be left deliberately ambiguous and open ended. Perhaps my idea of getting lost is an objective in itself, but if it is then there is no real way one can measure that objective. Heidegger argues that “we never come to thoughts, they come to us.” I interpret this to mean that true thinking can only occurs when one puts oneself at risk, and that means allowing oneself to let go of an intended trajectory or line of questioning. The metaphysical rule that the end is there from the very beginning constitutes the goal-orientated society of today. Don’t get me wrong, having goals is not a bad thing, but letting that goal crowd out other experiences, other ways of looking and feeling, is stifling to the thinking mind. I propose that we add lost in its verb form as a value. I’m speaking about an aesthetics of lostness, if you will. Of course, quantifiers and qualifiers will be appalled at this suggestion. How on earth, they will ask, will we know that our students are getting something out of all of this? Or worse, some damn fool will ask if there is a rubric that they can use to assess the students on the assignment. Sometimes we have to trust that our students will take something, even if it’s not what we intended, out of assignments and tasks. We also have to acknowledge that some of them will not.

I asked the students what they thought of the trip to the MFA as we were heading back to New Hampshire on the bus. Most of them had positive responses, but I feel that their responses can only really be ephemeral at best. It may take months or years for them to truly appreciate how the trip enhanced the class. More important still is the fact that they may not realize that getting lost in a museum for an afternoon may have been one of the most productive and rewarding experiences of their university education, and that is something that cannot be measured.

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