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To come together, individuals must first be torn apart

My class on the Camden Film Festival met this past Saturday to review the projects we’ve been working on all semester. Each of us is responsible for creating some form of documentary, in whatever medium we choose. Nearly all of us chose film. For six hours we sat in Lord Hall and watched the preliminary “first drafts” of the five-minute shorts that we’ve each created. It was a fascinating spectrum of topics and stories, everything from the possible closing of the Old Town community pool to the upcoming retirement of a beloved UMaine professor.

Some of the films were moody and artistic, others were professional and informative. But no matter the experience of the filmmaker, the topic of the short, or the style used, it was apparent that each of us was proud of our films. We were invested in the film’s success and in the creative process that we’d each undertaken to turn our abstract ideas into real, tangible creations. We felt like real artists.

There was, naturally, feedback — constructive criticism, praise, and brainstorming from our three professors and from each other. Everyone was respectful and helpful, receptive and open. It was great to see. But the whole day — and the process of having our creations critiqued — reminded me of a conversation we had in my Black Mountain College seminar last week about the idea of education as an exercise of violence.

That’s a heavy statement. “Education is the exercise of violence.” Think about that for a minute or two. It means that as active participants in our own education, we as students are willingly surrendering ourselves to each of our own “un-foundings.” In the process of learning, we must essentially surrender the self we know and then change. And anyone who walks away from an experience of learning unchanged from the self he or she was before has not learned. Learning and education is meant to change us. We should grow and evolve, break down old ideas and form new ones and then maybe throw away those ideas, too.

We talked about this idea of education as an exercise of violence for a while in my seminar that day. If all of that is true, then what role do teachers and professors play in our “un-foundings?” One could argue that they are indeed the executors of the violence. They are the force that “un-founds” us; they are the channel through which the knowledge and the learning and the changing is executed. That gives them a certain power over students, for they are responsible for our safety as we navigate this path — the journey of each of our own violent destructions and reformations. They are essentially responsible for our deaths and our rebirths. It is indeed a delicate kind of violence, for our intellects and characters are at stake.

I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve had a small handful of teachers throughout my education who have indelibly changed my life, teachers who expertly balanced the delicate with the violence, who “un-founded” and then rebuilt those of us who had surrendered to the process of learning.

So here we were in Lord Hall on Saturday, showing our projects to each other and to our professors. And I realized on the car ride home that each of us had been wielders of that quixotic power of violence. Through the feedback and critique that we offered after each film, we were, in a way, exercising violence. And as students and filmmakers, each of us had essentially surrendered ourselves to this violence. Here is my creation, we said. Here is my project. Now un-found me. Tell me what about it is weak and what is strong and how it can be better.

And it made me wonder. What is the balance between being an artist and a student? At what point does one start and the other stop? And is it even possible to be both at the same time? If we are here at UMaine as willing participants in our own destructions and reformations — in the violence of our deaths and rebirths as thinkers and intellectuals — do we even have the right to call ourselves artists?

I don’t really know if we do yet. We are aspiring artists. We are certainly creators. But we are still apprentices. If a professor gives you feedback on whatever project you’ve created, listen to him or her. Understand that it is for your betterment. It certainly feels like a kind of violence to hear criticism, but if the professor is a good one, then it is a delicate kind of violence. Surrender yourself to your own un-founding and do it with the expectation that you will emerge stronger and better and brighter than you were before.

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