My wife, Marian, just got the best compliment a teacher can get. Last week, after the final Zoom session of her art history class, a student hung around to tell Marian that she had made her feel smart. She said that she hadn’t had that feeling in school before. She thanked Marian for allowing her to have it now. 

Marian teaches liberal arts classes at a music conservatory. Her students could have attended a liberal arts college or full-service university, but chose not to. Instead, they dedicated themselves to expensive and arduous training in a field where careers are hard to come by.  They take Marian’s classes, in writing, literature, or art history, not because they want to but because the conservatory requires it. And so, like those of us who teach elementary, middle, or secondary school, my wife’s students are conscripts rather than volunteers. 

I had clear indicators before this fall that Marian was pretty good. She’s won three teaching awards. She gets repeat customers in her classes often enough. Many students say nice things to her. I’ve also watched her plan her courses. Her art history course, which she designed from scratch, took her several years to hone. I remember when she locked it in. She was excited and it sounded great. I wanted to take the course. 

Thanks to Zoom and COVID, this fall I did. Actually, I audited. The conservatory has been fully remote this fall. That means that Marian teaches in our dining room. I’m on leave this year, working on the book manuscript for the Four Question Method (due out this August!). I write in the study next to the dining room. I listened in from there. 

The course has a clear goal: Marian wants her students to understand what contemporary art is about. Some guy nails a banana to a wall. Another splatters paint on a canvas. A woman sits in a chair and has staring contests with strangers. Is that really art? It is. She shows them how and why. She’s divided the course into four sections: movements, materials, mastery, and museums. (Must be something in the water here. We all do things in fours.) She shows, with lots of vivid examples, how the work of artists, and the public response to that work, is shaped by each of those elements: the movements with which artists identify or to which they react. The materials they work with and transform. The mastery they display or invent or challenge or reject. The institutions that authorize, display, or exclude their work. 

The conception is so smart and the goal is so clear. Contemporary art befuddles lots of people. Marian uses it to get her aspiring artists, mostly musicians, to think more deeply about their own creativity and how it gets channeled through culture and institutions to become this thing we call “art”. They encounter movements and traditions and learn how new artists incorporate, challenge, and reinvent them. 

That’s all terrific, and worthy of recognition. But the compliment that young woman shared with Marian — that took more than a well designed course. It did require that, by the way. In order to make a student feel smart, you need to challenge them to do something worthy and then give them the tools to do it. Marian was clear on the challenge and provided lots of relevant materials. (She assigned each student a contemporary artist to feature in a project. She matched each student with an artist who complemented their interests!) 

That young woman, who managed to get through thirteen years of mandatory schooling without a single memorable moment of high competence, finally found it in Marian’s class. She found it because, she said, Marian took what she had to say seriously. Marian prepared her to join a conversation about ideas. Then, when she did so, Marian responded to her as though her ideas were worthy of sincere consideration. Marian respected her, publicly and repeatedly. 

I listened in. I’m confident that all the students felt that way. It took a student for whom the experience felt new to say something. It’s a simple, salutary reminder at the end of this unusual year and on the eve of what has got to be a better one. Our goal is always to make our students smart. Let’s make sure they know it and feel it.   

Happy New Year!