One of the occupational hazards of working as a teacher trainer, with a PhD in English Literature, is that I often toy with figures of speech that represent our efforts as teachers and learners. One that I am particularly fond of is that our attempts at educating resemble the positive and negative spaces in works of art. Very simplistically stated, the positive space includes where the artist intends our eye to settle. The negative space includes what the viewer’s eye often neglects, what is relegated to a supporting role or background.1
I am suggesting that in educational enterprises, the positive space contains what authority figures intend students to learn, the negative space what students learn despite these intensions. I’d venture to say that more often than not, there is little in common between the two.
As an example, I bring you Frederick Douglass, whose portrait hangs beside my office. Douglass was born into slavery and in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself
(originally published in 1845, before the American Civil War), he clearly attributes his desire to attain freedom to a discussion held in his presence between his new mistress and master on the dangers and immorality of teaching him to read. In the aftermath of discovering that Mrs. Auld has begun teaching 8 year-old Frederick to read, Mr. Auld elaborates upon the grave and dire consequences should she continue to teach him. “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do...Now,…if you teach that nigger…how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once be unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm.”2
Auld functions as unintentional teacher and unwitting spiritual guide, leading Little Freddie on the “pathway from slavery to freedom.” He understands that in the existing reality of Auld’s creation, he will remain a “slave for life” (269). Frederick’s eye is drawn to an entirely different portion of the painting, changing his view. That which the artist has hidden in the negative space has suddenly shifted into focus. Douglass determines to reject this mindset.3
His mission requires perseverance and resilience, he endures devastating cruelty and unbearable setbacks on the path toward realizing what his slave owner never intended.
At which point, I must ponder, how aware are we of what resides within the positive and negative spaces of our own creation? Can we teach these inflexible and untried muscles to see ourselves and others in the ever shifting negative and positive spaces of our educational experiences?
Of course, in modern art and in optical illusions (like the rabbit/duck), this is not always clear cut, but for the purpose of this discussion, let’s set aside these issues.
All quotes from page 263 except when stated otherwise, in Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Written by Himself. 1845. In Classic American Autobiographies, ed. William L. Andrews. New York: New American Library, 1992.
See Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on “fixed” and “growth mindsets.”