Not settling for average

I recently finished Atul Gawande‘s second book, Better:  A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.  Dr. Gawande is a staff member of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.

The last two chapters started me thinking about teaching the arts. How can we do this job better?

As I outlined my thoughts in my head I was struck with how much energy and passion is expended to make sure the arts are taught in public schools. This crusade takes on a life or death intensity at times – conversations on the street, in blogs, at workshops.  This is really important and we must persevere. We must win this battle for a place at the table and the future of our children.

And yet I am perplexed that once the arts are in the classroom the same intensity does not carry over to a concern that they are taught in the most effective manner.  Often it seems like this important aspect isn’t even on our radar screen. It’s as if once we make it in the door the rest will take care of itself. Something in that arts air will make teaching and learning a wonderful experience for everyone.

Those of us who work in the area of arts education bristle at the idea that what the arts have to offer students is “enrichment.” It brings a little something extra that makes the day nice or fun. There is nothing wrong with nice or fun but in these times of high stakes tests there is very, very little room for such things. And besides the arts have a lot more than enrichment to offer all our lives.

But do we teach the arts as if our lives depend on it? Do we plan our lessons with the same energy and passion that we use to defend an education in the arts? Does our teaching reflect an attitude that what we do is crucial?

In Gawande’s book he writes about situations where individuals have, at times under very difficult circumstances, made life for their patients better.

In one chapter he writes about surgeons in a small town in India.

Using just textbooks and advice from one another, the surgeons in this ordinary district hospital in India had developed an astonishing range of expertise.

What explains this? There was much the surgeons had no control over: the overwhelming flow of patients, the poverty, the lack of supplies. But where they had control – their skills, for example – these doctors sought betterment. They understood themselves to be part of a larger world of medical knowledge and accomplishment. Moreover, they believed they could measure up in it. This was partly, I think, a function of the Nanded surgeons’ camaraderie as a group. Each day I was there, the surgeons found time between cases to take a brief late-afternoon break at a café across the street from the hospital. For fifteen or thirty minutes, they drank chai and swapped stories about their cases of the day – what they had done and how. Just this interaction seemed to prod them to aim higher than merely getting through the day. They came to feel they could do anything they set their minds to. Indeed, they believed not only that they were part of the larger world but also that they could contribute to it.

True success in medicine is not easy. It requires will, attention to detail, and creativity. But the lesson I took from India was that it is possible anywhere and by anyone. I can imagine few places with more difficult conditions. Yes astonishing success could be found. And each one began, I noticed, remarkably simply: with a readiness to recognize problems and a determination to remedy them.

Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.

I was struck that these doctors work in situations where they are faced with an overwhelming work load and an incredible lack of supplies. And yet with their camaraderie as a group that “seemed to prod them to aim higher” they achieved astonishing success.

If we swapped stories about our day in the classroom – what we did and how – would it help us aim higher than merely getting through the day?

In an earlier chapter Gawande asks these questions:

The hardest question for anyone who takes responsibility for what he or she does is, What if I turn out to be average?

I could tell myself, Someone’s got to be average. If the bell curve is a fact, then so is the reality that most doctors are going to be average. There is no shame in being one of them, right?

Except, of course, there is. What is troubling is not just being average but settling for it. Everyone knows that averageness is, for most of us, our fate. And in certain matters – looks, money, tennis – we would do well to accept this. But in your surgeon, your child’s pediatrician, your police department, your local high school? When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we want no one to settle for average.

image of a bell curve

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