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.”