Art, Education, recent

Experiments in Nurturing Classroom Curiosity

Last semester, I was asked to teach a class about “socially engaged art” for the University of Colorado Denver, where I am an adjunct professor for the studio arts program. I was both surprised—did they know I gave a lecture at the University of New Orleans titled “Against Political Art” in 2017?—and delighted, because it was my first opportunity to teach an upper level discussion course, instead of introductory drawing and painting classes that focus on technical skills. The structure of the course was two-part, with half our time spent in class discussions and the other half as studio hours for students to create their own socially engaged art. Because my goal was to prepare the students intellectually to create such work, their opinions about sociopolitical issues were central to the course. And because university campuses have developed a reputation for intellectual intolerance, I suspected that this class would become either an echo chamber or a powder keg.

After the students shared their interests, I placed my bets on the powder keg: their views ranged from pro-life even for rape victims to undemocratic socialism; there was an Army veteran who wanted more border control, and there were students who wanted to express the emotional trials of coming out as lesbians. With such rich viewpoint diversity, I was glad that I framed our first class discussion with wisdom from philosopher Daniel Dennett about criticizing with kindness. Dennett wrote four rules to safeguard against the “tendency to caricature one’s opponent,” which began with steelmanning opposing arguments, or as he put it, “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” I paired this with a chapter from Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and a video clip from Margaret Hoover’s Firing Line. About 14 min into her interview with Tamika Mallory, Hoover steelmanned Mallory’s argument that white feminists ignore black women’s concerns, and then Mallory thanked Hoover for articulating it so well for her.

In that first class discussion, one student (who was painting about being biracial) took issue with this “sterile” approach to political discussion and argued that “only white liberals without skin in the game” could appreciate it. I replied that her criticism reminded me of one of our reading assignments, an article by psychologist Paul Bloom titled “The Perils of Empathy” that summarized his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, in which he argued that “when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy.” After observing that my student’s description of dispassionate discussion as “sterile” is an excellent adjective for the kind of rational compassion Bloom advocates in lieu of empathy, I asked her what she thought of his ideas and the research he used to bolster his point. She was unimpressed with Bloom’s evidence, and when I asked her to steelman “The Perils of Empathy” she sternly refused. And yet the discussion did not falter, because a few other students immediately offered to try their hand at steelmanning Bloom’s position, even though no one who spoke up agreed with him.

Later on in the semester, I was surprised when a Camille Paglia article about the #metoo movement caused less of a stir than Bloom. In it she bluntly asserted, “Great art has often been made by bad people. So what?” and then went on to say that “the impulse or compulsion toward art making is often grounded in ruthless aggression and combat—which is partly why there have been so few great women artists.” Paglia was referencing and refuting Linda Nochlin’s famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” that I assigned for the same discussion. Although most of my students dismissed her, one young woman (who was making art about the Madonna-whore complex) agreed with Paglia’s distaste for treating women as vulnerable. A week later, student protests broke out at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where Paglia is a professor, and the protestors circulated a petition demanding Paglia be fired; university president David Yager defended Paglia, and she wasn’t cancelled.

I wasn’t cancelled either. Instead, this “socially engaged art” class became the highlight of my fledgling career in academia. Much of this success depended on applying the Socratic method as a model for class discussions. They were not formal Socratic Seminars, but I facilitated discussions with probing questions to encourage students to think deeper about their opinions. For example, in our conversation about censorship, a student expressed concern about violent speech. “Do you mean violent or hurtful?” I asked. After a pause, “I guess… hurtful?”

The students who disagreed with me most were the greatest joy to teach. I tried not to push my own opinions on them, but on the first day of class I shared an anecdote about the pro-choice political art that I made as an undergraduate; although I never changed my mind about abortion, I realized my art was too polarizing to further my cause. And so, I explained to my students, I understand the urge to make political art as well as the reasons not to, and that they could interpret “socially engaged art” expansively when deciding what to create for our class. When one of my students announced that she wanted to write and illustrate a children’s book that would be a metaphor about her pro-life position, I told her she was brave for boldly sharing an opinion that she knew her professor disagreed with and that was generally despised on college campuses. She impressed me further with her work ethic: she finished her richly illustrated and carefully written story early enough to self-publish it before finals, when she came to class with a stack of professional-quality hardcovers.

On the other side of the political aisle, the undemocratic socialist demonstrated a great deal of intellectual humility. He was the only student who changed his mind about any of his opinions. Throughout the semester we exchanged lengthy emails discussing Marx and human nature, and our extended conversation was precisely the kind of scholarly exchange I was hoping to enjoy when offered the opportunity to teach a discussion course. He also created an impressive body of work, by completing a series of six well-executed paintings that referenced vintage WPA National Park posters while hinting at his hopes for the future of American society (a vision that he knew deviated from my own democratic sensibilities). Over the summer, one of these paintings was accepted into a juried show at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, a celebrated non-profit arts organizations in Denver.

I never did win over the student who disapproved of Paul Bloom and steelmanning, who accused me of providing a platform for bigotry at the end of the semester when I solicited feedback from my students about the course. But she was the only one who felt that way, and out of 17 students, a handful even wished there was more viewpoint diversity. Moreover, none of them advocated for censorship—even that student who despised my class explicitly opposed it. Unfortunately, a number of them admitted to self-censorship. But in the end, my classroom became neither an echo chamber nor a powder keg.

Maybe intellectual intolerance is more of a coastal problem in the United States, and universities between Portland and New York are less volatile environments… or maybe I just got lucky. Even so, I suspect that using a Socratic approach nurtured an open-minded classroom, because probing questions stimulate curiosity, contrary to political dogmas that tell people what to think. Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton noted how incuriosity affects the extreme ends of the political spectrum when he stated that the “absence of curiosity is a permanent characteristic of the revolutionary consciousness.” Ideology compels belief in brittle answers; curiosity urges us to wander into the unknown. In a classroom, curiosity should be sacred, because it motivates the pursuit of knowledge even when that includes ugly truths.

If I have the opportunity to teach a “socially engaged art” class again, I plan on incorporating a new kind of probing question in my repertoire: “What would it take for you to change your mind?” In How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay claim that asking people this question before they justify their beliefs is the most effective way to encourage open-mindedness. Next time, I’ll ask my students to write an essay answering that question for their very first assignment. Hopefully this will make them even more receptive toward viewpoint diversity than my students last semester, and that might result in less self-censorship. If techniques like this can improve on my initial promising results, then perhaps it was curiosity, rather than luck, that diffused my powder keg.


Megan Gafford is an artist. You can follow her on Twitter @megan_gafford and Instagram @megan.gafford


  1. Another question would be: “How did you come to form the opinion (s) you have?” And request that it be answered with specificity and not broad generalizations.

  2. “For example, in our conversation about censorship, a student expressed concern about violent speech. “Do you mean violent or hurtful?” I asked. After a pause, “I guess… hurtful?”

    I was injured by a split infinitive. Assaulted with a dangling participle. There is NO such thing as violent speech. Perpetuating the notion of “violent speech” is contrary to the founding principles of Quillette. TRIGGER WARNING This next assertion may make those prone to fear violent speech wet themselves: Speech can not harm you. Speech can only harm you if you allow it.

    “I told her she was brave for boldly sharing an opinion that she knew her professor disagreed with and that was generally despised on college campuses.”

    “Despised” interesting caricature of what campus life must be like for conservative students. Perhaps the author should be more concerned with the fate of students who are equated with murderers, pedophiles and holocaust perpetrators than so called violent words.

  3. You’re right about the falsity of violent speech. That said, the less confrontational approach of offering the alternative “hurtful speech” appears to have caused the student to reflect and shift gears. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Perhaps outside of class the student no longer buys into the idea of violent speech and may even use the hurtful speech alternative with others.

    Hope has its value.

  4. I quite disagree; for me the proper response to the violent speech comment would be “Explain yourself.” These students aren’t preschoolers, they are nominally old enough to defend their theses, and to dig into issues in hard conversations with other adults.

    As for the alternative offered - hurtful - hurtful to whom or to what, and why? As written in the article, that approach just seems to give the student a way to sidle out of confronting the possible weaknesses of their own position.

    And in the long run that rather implies they won’t be developing the skills or thick skin necessary to defend their work, or to learn, from strong criticism. The art world tends to be a little rough - as it should be - because every half decent artwork is in its own way a reflection of the artist’s subjective view of fundamental values (like truth, beauty, apple pie, whatever). And that by nature is going to conflict with somebody else’s.

  5. Last semester, I was asked to teach a class about “socially engaged art” for the University of Colorado Denver, where I am an adjunct professor for the studio arts program.

    “Socially engaged art” is a phrase that sounds to me like political propaganda. What used to be called “agitprop”.

    More akin to advertising than art.

  6. @Ga

    With all due respect I believe the little angels suffer from a dearth of confrontation and correction. By asking is it one or the other, the implication is both choices are valid. However I am mindful as you point out there is more than one way to skin a cat. I guess my dearth of patience and sensitivity is showing. I always preferred the drill sergeant take no prisoners Professor.

  7. No, it’s actually been integral to art for a long time; maybe after dinner I’ll put up some images of older work dating back to the Reformation.

    But for now, here’s a brief video of the show Glanz und Elend for which the book I mention above was a catalogue. It focused on work from the Weimar era. The video is in German, but it has readable but rather irritatingly placed subtitles.
  8. I think you’re right about a lack of experience dealing with blunt confrontation and the consequences that arise from it. There’s merit in the different approaches, including what @HalifaxCB wrote in response to my comment. I don’t disagree with both of you. In fact, years ago I would have firmly aligned myself with that because I deal well with the confrontational approach, both in the giving and the taking. That said, I learnt a lot of people, likely the majority, don’t handle it well. They become angry, they don’t engage, they shut down. Tact has its merits.

    Further, over the years education has become therapeutic. I think this has caused many of the problems we see that exist now, ones you’ve mentioned, but I’m a realist, so if I have to shift fire by mollycoddling a bit more than I’m inclined to do, that’s minor concession I can live with.

  9. Thanks for posting the video. I find it peculiar no Bauhaus artists, for example Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Wassily Kandinsky, were mentioned, though it seems the exhibition was orientated to the new female as object and artist.

    When I was in secondary school I wrote about the Bauhaus for my WWII paper, covering its rise during Weimar and its fall after being declared Entartete Kunst (degenerate art) by the Nazis and concurrently the Soviet run Communist International directing Cubists, Expressionists, Dadaists, etc. to give way to Socialist Realism.

    What was notable about Bauhaus was the goal to unify all of the arts in building, i.e. architecture. Not only would painting, sculpture, and architecture be unified, the applied arts of furniture, textile, and other product design would be included - the bringing together of artist and craftsman in a new community.

    During Weimar, the applied arts experienced a phenomenal revolution with the partnership between artist-designers and industrialists organised through the Deutscher Werkbund.

  10. I do agree that tact has it’s merits. I’ve worked with a number of young artists - though most likely older than the ones in the article, they’ve already graduated from university. And I get the sense they really enjoy wide open discussions, especially if we are both interested in understanding something.

    But I did want to get back to @MorganFoster’s point. Now I don’t know what the author of the article really means by “socially engaged art” because it’s not really well defined in the article. But for now I’m just taking it as work that makes addresses some aspect of the artist’s contemporary society.

    As far as I know, and I’m no expert, I just love this stuff - among the earliest was an “Alphabet Series” of engraved prints by an artist only known as Master E.S. These were done in the mid-to-late 1400s: here’s a sample of the letter Q:

    This engraving focuses on the effect of the nobility’s pastime (warfare) on the peasantry. Notice the two peasants being crushed under the horses. Many of the other letters are more whimsical, but as the source (arthive) points out:

    At first glance the Fantastic Alphabet appears to be a drollery and jest of the artist. By no means should these letters be seen as mere humorous imagery. The artist told his late medieval viewers about the conflict between good and evil and his contemporaries could easily read those symbols.

    Warfare and its cruelty has been a persistent theme since that period, see Goya’s The Disasters of War [Wikipedia], for example.

    Another social theme art has constantly engaged with is religion, and in many different ways. For example, there’s Caravaggio’s use of everyday people as models for many of his paintings relating to New Testament themes. That was quite frowned upon by the powers-that-be!

    And of course there’s the Catholic-Protestant conflict, one of whose greatest artists was Hans Holbein. Here’s a woodcut version of his print Hercules Germanicus, circa 1519:

    Martin Luther, depicted as Hercules Germanicus defeating Occamists, Aristotelians and papists, by Hans Holbein Younger (1497 or 1498-1543) [Getty]


    Interesting that Holbein was about the same age as an average art student now when he did that. Hmmmm…

    Now I can get very long winded about this, but let’s just skip forward a century or so to what I consider to be one of the most profoundly socially engaged works - Rubens’ Studies of the Head of a Negro.


    Now this might not seem to be the most “socially engaged” of art - where’s the protest? where’s the suffering? Where’s the oppression? But consider at how blacks were usually -though not always - portrayed until that time: usually by caricature or by rote. But here Rubens portrays his sitter as simply another human being with a life worth living. I don’t think one can get much more socially engaged than that.

  11. I suspect that here, your interpretation of the phrase “socially engaged art” is rather different than what was likely meant by the committee that designed the art class taught by the author of this article.

    If every work of art is socially engaged - and it could be argued so - then of what use is the term?

  12. It all depends upon your audience. I have notice that with tantrum throwers, the direct ‘‘it’s my way or the highway’’ approach works wonders. It’s not really a matter of winning these people over, only making sure that you have the power rather than them.
    Haven’t you noticed that with the left irrational violence is highly respected, if it comes from a member of the officially oppressed. Thus you get the plaver about how the muslim terrorist is wrong, but that he must surely have some wirthwhile grivance if he is willing to flout the rules of civilisation and commit such awful acts.
    My rule when someone takes offence when I meant none is to take offence quitte heatedly at the other person taking offence. It always flusters such people when you reatlliate with a bit of controlled anger of your own.
    This is what we need more of. We need to make the SJWs apologise for taking offence or creating offence when none is given. We also need to kibosh the notion that speech can harm people and that violence is a suitable reaction to offensive speech.

  13. Agreed.

    And it is less important for the SJW to back down than it is for witnesses to see you pushing back, in the expectation that they will eventually take courage from your behavior and do some pushing back of their own.

  14. I love the idea of steelmanning, it’s one of my favorite mental habits and one of the first indications to me in a conversation with another person, how they handle other folks’ arguments.

    The problem from where I am (public schools near San Francisco, CA) is that no one would ever even consider “steelmanning” a single comment from Trump, a Republican or basically anyone they disagree with. Ok, so that’s not quite the steelman version of their position, but, it’s actually closer to the truth than it is to hyperbole.

    The progression of ideas started with racism in the 60’s. Once it became “agreed” and “accepted” that racism was wrong, no one was required to steelhead racist arguments anymore. You don’t try to understand racism, you know it’s wrong, you can love the racist, you can be nonviolent, but there is no discussion anymore about is racism a viable theory or idea.

    What’s happened over the last 20 years or so is that the definition of racism has expanded, and the number of ideas that have been declared equivalent to racism (e.g. homophobia) has expanded greatly.

    I think a hugely powerful tool in the far left’s playbook is the strategy that by labeling a comment or argument racist, homophobic, hate speech, neo Nazi, etc. etc. then you don’t need to engage it, understand it or counter it, you simply need to call it out and demand outrage.

    If you ever make it to the place where people would actually take the time to present the best version of another person’s argument before trying to refute it, that’s light years ahead of where I am and I think better than half way through being able to respond in a positive way to any level of problem.

    But for many groups here, even the thought of trying to understand what Trump or any Republican politician is saying is not only not a goal, it would be an immoral act, an act of giving in to one’s oppressors, an act of cooperating with the occupation.

  15. I recently visited the cathedral in Cologne. It is mightily impressive. Although I was surprised to see that it is located directly beside a train station/ shopping complex. This certainly dampens it’s sense of grandeur somewhat.

    Socially engaged art in its current form is motivated by a slave mentality. It is the celebration of mediocrity. It is not possible then for it to stir the soul and encourage repeat viewings. Contemporary art will be laughed at by future societies who will see in it a reflection of a totally alien culture.

    @Geary_Johansen2020 Personally, I find great art to be that which promotes powerful feelings deep within. Of course music I think achieves this best .

    @HalifaxCB I’ve always loved that Turner painting. It was the front cover of the Paul Johnson book “The Birth of the Modern World Europe 1815-1830”. My country has a Turner exhibition every January . It has some of his very minor works but interesting nonetheless.

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

22 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum