What a Nobel Laureate in Physics can teach us about arts education

Lately, I have been researching stars.  As an apprentice of the, my assignment is to explore a “generative topic” that will help me design some bold and juicy arts-centered curriculum.  My generative topic is stars.  Earth, Wind, and Fire taught us, “You’re a shining star, no matter who you are.”  I have always been intrigued by this message.  What does it mean to be “a star”?  What is our relationship as humans to the cluster of elements we call “stars” in the universe?  Why do we choose to label some humans as stars and some not?  Is it possible, even probable, that we are all “stars”?
As part of my research, I recently watched .  I wanted to fill in some gaps in my scientific knowledge about what stars (the ones we see in the sky) actually are.  I learned the basics.  Stars begin as roughly 70% Hydrogen and 28% Helium (2% other stuff) and then go through the process of fusion where they start to take on the other heavier elements – Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, etc.  Described by one scientist as “the ultimate alchemists,” stars are pretty incredible in that they are these miraculous self-contained and proactive systems that, with the pure power of their own mass, produce the principle elements of life.  Then, because all life is about connection, they clump together into star forming regions (or nebula), evolving, and turning themselves into new stars.  All of this makes life, as we know it, possible.

Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias

Watching scientists talk about the life cycle of a star and its effect on our lives here on Earth made my jaw drop.  I was super geeked out by the awesomeness of our universe.  But, as it turns out, the awesomeness of the universe has nothing on the radical wisdom of a human being in his full vulnerability sharing his story.  Robert Wilson is an astronomer who won the Nobel Prize, along with Arno Penzias, for discovering the in 1964 that was the key to unlocking the Big Bang theory.  Wilson and Penzias were interviewed as part of this Nova episode because their discovery was so clearly a dramatic turning point in our understanding of the history and context of our entire universe.  Talk about jaw dropping.  But, here’s where I was completely floored.  In his interview, Wilson said the following when reflecting on winning the Nobel Prize in the mid-70’s:

“Do I really deserve this?  Should my name be on the same list as Einstein?  It just seemed completely wrong.  Over the years, I guess I’ve come to understand that the Nobel Prize is given for discovering something, not for being the smartest person around.  So, while there are much smarter people around, we did something significant and I feel comfortable with it now.”

This quote was so meaningful to me because it is narrative proof that we are all made of stardust.  Sure, we are all made of the same stuff, elements like nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen.  But, in and through those elements, we are also made of the same stuff that makes us feel afraid and unworthy in the face of bigness and newness.  The same stuff that compares ourselves to others and wonders if we have what it takes to be significant in this world.  The same stuff that seeks to make meaning of this massive universe and our place in it.  The same stuff that can grow, evolve, connect with each other, and continue to make discoveries that will change our worlds for the better.  If a well-resourced astrophysicist can feel fear and doubt and unworthiness about his contributions to the planet, then, is it such a surprise that so many of the under-resourced young people we teach in our schools and communities feel that way too?  And, on the flip side, since we are made of the same stuff, if a well-resourced astrophysicist can come to the understanding that his work is about discovery, regardless of whether or not he’s the “smartest person around,” can’t our young people gain that same understanding?
Eventually, I will lead educators and teaching artists through my bold and juicy curriculum as an instructor for ILSP’s Course B (“Ongoing Assessment Strategies and Applications: Making Learning Visible, Studio Habits of Mind, Rubrics and Portfolios”…whew, that’s a mouth-full).  As I create this curriculum, I do so with the full understanding that, as educators, we should not focus any time and attention on making sure our students are “smart”.  Instead, we must create and assess the learning environments that lead to acts of discovery.  Art making allows all of us to notice what is around us; challenge, question and wrestle with these noticings; and make something new that shows the world what we know, believe, and feel.  These acts of discovery are what make the world go.  If students are not able to participate in these acts, they will be left behind.
We must understand that, although our students may be living in different communities with different histories and different resources, they are all made of the same stuff.  You’re a shining star, no matter who you are.  We must source this stuff and equip our students with the skills and tools to navigate the black holes while reaching for the stars.
Lynn Johnson is a theater teaching artist, writer/blogger/speaker and the Membership Director for Teaching Artists Guild.  She is also the Co-Founder/CEO of Glitter & Razz Productions LLC, producer of Go Girls! Camp, an internationally recognized social innovation, where 6-11 year olds make and perform their very own peaceful and powerful plays that “we believe will change the world.”



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