Eichmann and the Brain-Enabling Functions of Art

A bunch of ideas and connections swirling around today.

Yesterday in my human rights class, we talked about the rights of refugees (versus the deplorable state of the practice) and we also talked about the exceptions to the 1951 Convention, and I brought up the case of Eichmann in Argentina. War criminals are not recognized as needing asylum, although many do manage to flee and find sanctuary. Argentina had no willingness to extradite Eichmann, and thus the Moussad kidnapped and hauled him back to Israel for trial and execution. We got into a discussion about extradition rules in international law and policy, and what these protocols suggest for refugees.

I’ve also been on my transit class’s case about laptops in class. I am sure that some people are taking notes, etc, but some people are screwing around and it’s just tiring to try to have a debate or conversation with nothing but a bunch of the tops of heads to look at. I want people to be present when we are together.

I remember asking about banning laptops via the USC Price faculty listserv–what do other professors do?–and one of my junior colleagues scoffed at me. “Join the 21st century,” He laughed. “Put away your ego. Realize that students are going to multi-task and deal with it.”

I took the criticism seriously, but I still had problems. I felt like, with laptops open, students weren’t paying attention to me, or each other. Then one day my colleague came back to me and said…”OK, I just watched my students on their laptops and phones when their colleagues were giving a class presentation. When the guys spoke, people paid attention. When the women spoke, their faces went down to check their computers. It made me sick.”

Yeah. Listening, not listening.

We are having conversations about the difference between writing with your hands versus typing. I am not sure what to believe about all that research, but I do know that I am a much better thinker with a pencil in my hand. That is just me, personally. I’m sure there are those who write better at a computer. But I do know that people who take notes with notebooks are much more engaged in class than the people who take notes with computers. Why? I think it’s because it’s just you and the page. A notebook is just you and it. It just collects what you write. A computer lets you do that, but it’s got a full universe behind it. I like it when students use that universe to check ideas, find out more about things, etc. But very, very few students do that. And it’s also something they could do outside of class and bring with them the next time to introduce the discussion if they are interested in it.

What does this have to do with art and Eichmann, you ask? In reflecting on Eichmann, I remember seeing a German documentary on the capture of Eichmann, and I vividly remember that one of the Moussad agents, Zvi Aharoni, extensively sketched Eichmmann and the streetscape surrounding the house–really accurately–before attempting a secret photo because Eichmann was so clever and paranoid about photographs he would, if he caught somebody doing it, simply vanish to another part of Argentina. They used his sketches of the streetscape to plan the photo capture (the camera was hidden in a bag) and to set up a plan for the agents to use during Eichmann’s eventual capture.

The idea that arts education is silly or a luxury tends to forget that you never really know what skills are going to be useful; here, art helped capture one of the world’s most wanted men who committed terrible crimes against humanity.

Art, writing, using your hands and body to create…these are way of thinking and observing, and those skills are useful in so many contexts, and sometimes useful in ways you just can’t predict ahead of time.

Buzzfeed has a collection of beautiful notes you can look at, and I highly recommend it. I’m sure these are recopied, or created from reading notes; the anatomy ones are amazing. What is going on cognitively when these learners are making art and notes at the same time? I don’t know. But although my doodles are lame, messy and sad by comparison to these, I really think that the combination of drawing and writing works for me cognitively, where drawing eases and enhances the crabbed, linear, disciplined, argumentative task of writing. It opens space in my brain, as vague as that sounds, that expands the creativity of the entire task of writing.

I’m sure people who have taken to computers and screens more than I have do have different, more effective strategies for using the computer as a tool than I do.

But one thing I am pretty much sure about: the Internet is really fun. And distracting. And informative. And while it’s useful, keeping it in its place is difficult. I struggle every time I open it. (I’ve checked my email eleventy billion times this morning writing this blog post on the computer, and I’ve checked Fboo 900 million times, and…I hate myself for it.)