Reform: The Need for Passion: Morna McDermott

I first met Morna McDermott through a Rethinking Schools’ article she wrote on using art for social change in education. Moran spoke about the power of art in helping teachers and students to have a voice in the debate over educational reform. I later did an interview with Morna in Little Patuxent Review and we have continued to support each other’s work ever since. Welcome, Morna!

“You find that that fire is passion/And there’s a door up ahead not a wall”
~Lou Reed, 1992

Art and education for me are passions. Passion evokes the entire self into an experience. Passion in general terms implies giving entirely of oneself (body and spirit if you will) to an act or an idea. The process requires complete immersion of the whole being, knowledge, feeling, memory, hopes, and fears, rather than the safety of aloof “objective” removal of self and observation. Do we create educational experiences for children that evoke passion? Or do we, as Wordsworth puts it, “murder to dissect?”

Morna McDermott at United Opt Out Event
Morna McDermott at United Opt Out Event

The world of real life education is filled with multiple voices from ordinary people struggling to create their own lives. As education professionals, we become no more than a lofty idea raised so high above the din that we cannot hear the music. We cut out those parts of their world that we’d rather not see. bell hooks [1] (1995) believes that our current educational crisis stems from, “the traditional technicist attitude of teachers who, unaware of the outside influences in students’ lives”, and thus ignores “their cries for relevance in their lives.” Instead of attending to those important influences, we dissect their lives, their motives, their experiences, to fit policies created in the mind’s eye of corporate billionaires who see children and teachers as nothing more than “human capital.”

When we do something with a passion, our spines tingle and our hearts race and we are completely immersed in the moment and our senses heightened. We remain attentive to the experience and nothing else. Not only are we more present and awake, we are somehow also merged more deeply into ourselves and yet equally part of the thing or persons that evokes the passion. The core of our education experiences, as acts of artistic passion, bring us into a dynamic interplay with something larger than ourselves. As an artist, it is necessary for me to say what otherwise can’t be said, to draw out the meaning I seek from the cracks in the cement and to seek untold possibilities from out of the darkness.

“As you pass through the fire…there are things you have to throw out” (Lou Reed, 1992).

Creation requires risk. It requires a willingness to let go of outcomes and immerse ourselves with a sense of faith in the process. Being an artist is nothing I do. Being an artist is something I am. Bringing ourselves as conscious creators into the equation means cutting loose from the anchors of absolute knowledge and singular visions. Art, the artist’s eye, and art as a way of being, offer us a means of creation rather than destruction. Art speaks to the soul. It is the language of poetry, metaphor, shape and form that allow us to face the task ahead by bringing forth into the light, the vital life force elements stuffed between the cracks of dead and static concrete. Art brings the language of understanding needed to anchor the journey where literal meaning cannot be exacted. To try renders us speechless, saying everything but what needs to be said, seen, or heard.

“There’s a bit of magic in everything/And then some loss to even things out” (Lou Reed, 1992).

As such, the artist and the medium become interchangeable. Can we envision an educational framework that immerses our children in such a way that they are empowered to transform both themselves and the world? Speaking of art in the postmodern era, Suzi Gablik (1991) [2]describes art as a re-constructive act that can transform society. What she writes of art I also see through the eyes of an educator. She argues that a society which breeds competition and separates individuals through hierarchies and power relationships also “leads to a deadening of empathy-the solitary, self-contained, self sufficient ego is not given to what David Michael Levin calls ‘enlightened listening’, a listening oriented towards the achievement of shared understanding“. To become consciously aware of this becomes a source of empowerment. It allows one to bring the imagination to the foreground of practice.

The educator- as- artist begins to envision new possibilities. Learning becomes an opus, through which the process of bringing together: self and other, our individual and collective passions as well as our voices, words and images, into a creative act of transformation. We are defined not so much by what we know but by the empty spaces between the lines. Real change is not adding to something. Education transformation will not come through an onslaught of “innovations” or ‘standards” sold to us by corporations and technology think-tanks. Education as transformation means we (as process and “product”) are altered at our core, our core of what we do every day and what we can envision.

[1] hooks, b. (1997). Wounds of Passion. New York: Henry Holt Press.
[1] Gablik, S. (1991/1995). The re-enchantment of art. New York: Thames & Hudson.
[1] hooks, b. (1997). Wounds of Passion. New York: Henry Holt Press.
[2] Gablik, S. (1991/1995). The re-enchantment of art. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Bio: Morna McDermott is one of the eight administrators for the national movement United Opt Out. She has been working in, with, and around public schools for over twenty years. Currently she is also a Professor at Towson University, in Maryland where she teaches various theory and methods courses in the College of Education. Her scholarship and research interests focus on democracy, social justice, and arts-informed inquiry in K-post secondary educational settings, and working with beginning and experienced educators. Her recent books include The Left Handed Curriculum: Creative Experiences for Empowering Teachers (2012), and An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution (2014) She also writes for her blog Her latest posts are titled  “If George Orwell ran an Education Conference, It Would Be This” and “Swindling Our Schools: Baltimore County Style.”

Holding On and Letting Go: Musings on Ambition by Barbara Quick

Barbara Quick and I met in 2011 at Toad Hall Writer’s Retreat in New Hampshire.  We spent several days in a lovely setting, writing during the day and gathering in the evening for cocktails, dinner, and readings. I was struck by Barbara’s quiet charm and her insightful prose, and I’m happy to share Barbara’s musings on the theme of holding on and letting go.

Ambition. It feels like a small animal with sharp teeth that attached itself, early on, to my person. Maybe it’s a typical phenomenon for any child marked as precocious. There’s a sense of expectation that may or may not be justified. Precocious children get to the same place everyone else does—they just get there faster. Being an early reader with an affinity for metaphor doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll grow up to be a writer, to say nothing of growing up to be a writer with something important to offer the world.

I’m so tired of those tiny teeth sunk into me somewhere I can’t reach, like an itch I’d love to scratch and can’t.

Barbara Quick
Barbara Quick

Ambition makes me mean and small, because it’s never satisfied. Every milestone achieved gives a moment of relief—and then that voice starts up again, whispering in my ear, Is that all you’ve got? Hanging by its teeth from somewhere behind my shoulder, the creature bites harder, chews a little and denigrates everything I’ve ever done. It chews me up and spits me out. Work harder, it says. I expected more of you.

But who would ever write without ambition’s nasty bite? Yes, Emily Dickinson put her poems in a dresser drawer and hardly ever showed them to anyone. But she made sure they’d be found someday, found and read.

No one writes and throws their best, most polished words into the fire. Life itself will do that, eventually, when all our carefully crafted pages are like so many autumn leaves, giving up their tenuous hold and going into free-fall. Still filled with the juice of life but destined to desiccate soon, turning brown and dry and then broken by wind and footsteps, until what was once the glory of a tree is indistinguishable from the earth itself. All art will disappear one day, along with every trace of humankind.

Poor excuse, says the sharp-toothed one, goading me to use the time I have to say whatever it is I have inside me, and to say it well.

After sixty-one years of this symbiosis, I’ve realized that I have to work out a deal with the creature, who is never going to leave me, not as long as I possess the mental agility needed to write—nor would I want it to.

I let it gnaw on me. But I also encourage it to sleep, so it lets go its hold. Without those teeth sunk into my flesh, I gulp the good air of simply being alive. Other writers’ books and triumphs give me pleasure then (if the accolades are well deserved). I go from being a sullied creature dog-paddling in a muddy pond to a strong and graceful swimmer in a turquoise-colored sea, big enough for everyone who wants to be there.

There are so many books published, so many poems written. So many beautifully talented writers, filled with passion and humanity, alive in the world, each one of them with a unique point of view and a voice that matters.

I love swimming with them, immersing myself in their words and offering my words, too. Adding my voice to that chorus with its mysterious power to touch strangers—to make them cry, laugh and feel connected to the most intimate thoughts and emotions of a writer sitting all alone in a room or a crowded café or a library.

All writers need to remember (as do their parents and partners) that the physical act of committing words to a page is only the last step in the long—sometimes years long—process we call creative writing. Suffering is often part of that process—the wordless, helpless suffering experienced by a child. Staring out windows, long walks, reading, dreaming, looking for love in all the wrong places—traces of all these things that would seem to have nothing to do with writing can be found, by a good investigator, along the trail that leads to Art.

Whether we ever get there or not isn’t really the business of the writer. Time is the only true arbiter of literary merit, no matter how distressing it feels to come up short of one’s hopes and expectations of the world’s admiration and approval right now.

When the creature wakes, I know it’s time for me to return to that solitary place where I can find a cure for the nagging sense of discontent, the longing without an object, the loneliness that courses through my blood.

It’s not ambition that makes me write, but only the need to save myself once more. To open that magic door and walk through. I hold on tight—and then I let go.

Author bio:

Novelist, poet and journalist Barbara Quick is the author of Northern Edge, winner of the Discover Award, Vivaldi’s Virgins, which has been translated into 15 languages, and the young adult novel, A Golden Web. Her essays and articles have been commissioned by national and international journals, including the New York Times Book Review and National Geographic.