Psychologists have long sought insights into how we make sense of the world, what drives our behavior, and they’ve made enormous strides into lifting that veil of mystery. In this blog, I will attempt to understand the thinking style of two pioneers, in unrelated fields, draw comparisons that will reveal the underlying psychological essence common to both, and surmise what lessons specific to education we can glean from this context.
Preparing to give a Tour in the National Gallery of Art:
To prepare for a school tour on ‘Bird in Space,’ a classic sculpture by a Romanian artist Brancusi, I harnessed the museum’s curatorial files, online resources, scoring through encyclopedias and books and digging into research articles, etc., to unpack the underlying narrative. I was curious to get a sense of what Brancusi was about, his experiences, the beliefs shaped by those experiences, the time he lived in and its influence, and so forth.
Questions like, ‘What defined this pioneering force in modern sculpture who paved the way for many generations of artists?’ ‘What were the key principles underlying his genius, wherein lie the source of novelty in his art, what was important to him, what wasn’t, and above all, what distinguished his art?’ spurred my research. Taken together, my intent was to get an insight into and document Brancusi’s thinking style that guided his art, distinguishing it from the rest. What I garnered through my research informed my understanding regarding how two celebrated geniuses, separated by a century, but more so by the respective fields they took delight in and excelled, may still be identical in the way they came to be known as pioneers in their fields.
Brancusi’s Quest for the Essence:
Seeking a unique path for sculpture around 1907, Brancusi broke with the currents of the time: he combined different materials for single works, adopted direct carving, & simplified form in his quest for the essential.
In his quest to re-create sculpture out of the elemental form of the material, Brancusi rambled around the complex details that surround an object, until he reached the very essence that was, in a way, a simplified version of what had appeared at the first glance. Navigating his way through the maze of complexity, he identified the essence of this supernatural bird of the Romanian folk tradition to be flight itself- no feathers, no beak, no claws, just the essence which he identified as flight itself.
In doing so, Brancusi, the most important 20th century sculpture stands among several other geniuses who grasped the underlying structure camouflaged by the variety (Picasso’s Bulls is another example). To reach that underlying structure, Brancusi (or Picasso) didn’t “ignore” the outside, rather, studied it closely before delving into deeper realms or ‘essence’, and then, to concentrate on the essentials, eliminated every unnecessary detail, thereby progressing from a motionless creature to the act of flying itself.
In his own words, ‘What my work is aiming at is, above all, realism: I pursue the inner, hidden reality, the very essence of objects in their own intrinsic fundamental nature; this is my only deep preoccupation.” Frowning at those who summed up his work as abstract, an offended Brancusi called them ‘imbeciles’ who called his work so.
Steve Job’s Quest
Another pioneer whose name resonates with innovation and style, Steve Jobs, whose saga is the entrepreneurial creation myth writ large, co-founded Apple in his father’s garage, and by the time cancer took his life, he had built Apple into one of the world’s most valuable company, carving a niche for himself as one of America’s innovators. The true essence of Jobs, according to one of his biographers is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. (Just like Brancusi poured his philosophical understandings into the sculptures he made). It seemed that the normal rules didn’t apply to Jobs, and his petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.
Job’s Quest for Simplicity: Filtering out the Distractions
By getting Apple to focus on making just four computers, he saved the company, as he explained, “Deciding what not to do is as essential as deciding what to do.” After righting the dwindling company, Jobs began taking top 100 people on a yearly retreat where he would ask each employee what should they be doing next. Jobs would filter 10 suggestions and finally, slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three,” thus zeroing in on the essence which he would work on with a laser like focus. Job’s ability to focus was coupled with his instinct to make things ‘simple’ through boiling down the components until the essence remained, thus getting rid of the unnecessary, e.g., he got rid of the clutter of navigational ribbons and intrusive features in Apple’s software to make it user friendly.
Arriving at Simplicity:
How Jobs arrived at this simplicity is also akin to Brancusi’s ‘quest for essence’ because Jobs didn’t make Apple simple (cool) by merely ignoring complexity. As Jobs himself said, “it takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions. Simplicity to him didn’t imply removing the clutter without having a grasp of the role of each element, e.g., Jobs said, “to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted & complex,” and added, “The better way is to understand everything about it and then go deeper with the simplicity.”
This kind of decision making in opting for the best after developing a thorough understanding of the whole echoes Brancusi’s grasp of the anatomy of Maestra and then reducing it so only the essence, which was flight itself, remained.
Brancusi spent hours experimenting with the object and the material, pondering over the essence of the bird, deliberating on and trying to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, while our students buffet between classes in a rush that zaps through their energy till the last bell rings, where teachers learn to solve problems on the fly due to the rush of getting to the end of the syllabus. And as if this weren’t enough, we undermine the importance of subjects like the Arts and Humanities, oblivious to (or overlooking) the fact that the arts make use of the range of human faculties, and Literature for instance opens a window the world and embodies perspectives.
Unfortunately, our educational endeavor lacks creativity and purpose, failing to provide enriching opportunities, e.g., being curious and engaged, that every child cherishes and deserves. We need to engage children in thinking behaviors like risk taking, choosing options, considering multiple perspectives and so forth that they may be able to use throughout life, across contexts.
Presenting a potpourri of facts for children to learn for exams isn’t worthwhile until we ensure that they reach conclusions proactively because of their understandings rather than merely learning the inference of others. Howard Gardner rightly and famously sums it up: “What our children learn in schools is a mile long but an inch deep.” I think we need to reflect on Gardner’s statement before we assume we are doing what it takes to educate children.