"The future depends on what you do today" - Mahatma Gandhi

The Illusion of Action

by David Lance Goines (1)


So you look in the mirror and you think to yourself, "You know, I seem to have lost my slender schoolgirl figure," and you go out to the bookstore and buy the latest trendy diet book, and to the sporting goods store and buy some fancy exercise clothes and running shoes and a book on running and a treadmill, and you go to the Y and buy a year's membership in the gym which includes aerobic classes and weight training and then you stop. You don't actually do anything beyond this and of course nothing happens.

This is why there are so many diet books. Because dieting is not only incredibly simple -- eat less, exercise more -- but it's also hard because you actually have to do it.

Not talk about it, not think about it, not read about it, but do it. That's why bureaucrats have their endless, meaningless meetings. They think participating in a Chinese fire drill is doing something because it's complicated and takes up a lot of time. That's why young people go to art school, or cooking school or writing school. Because it makes them feel like they're doing something, but they're not.

Last year I attended a Masters of Fine Arts exhibition by a young woman, the daughter of a grade school friend, who had completed six expensive years of art education at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. I looked carefully at the room full of various kinds of art, and near as I could figure she had entered the school with a modest talent and had not improved on it in any way. She had nothing to say, and because she had been taught no technique, she said it very badly. I found this disturbing, especially considering that her education had cost the price of a new house and all it had prepared her for in the way of earning a living was to wait table.

I have long observed that art school seems to be an expensive baby-sitting service for students who don't have good high school grades and who yet desire to put off adulthood and its responsibilities--such as getting a real job--and who don't want to enlist in the armed forces.

Much of the pressure on young people to continue their formal educations comes from the parents, who feel that any higher education is better than no higher education. The children are swept along by this considerable pressure, and go to school even if they don't want to. So, the unwilling horse is led to the fountain of knowledge and, unsurprisingly, declines to make any but a pretence of drinking.

I had blamed their lack of education on the teachers, who indeed seem to be a self-absorbed, careless lot. But I have come to realize that the failure of art education is a two-way street: the teachers have nothing to teach, and the students don't want to learn. They want only the illusion of an education, and that is what they get. Their level of participation in an already undemanding environment is just too low.

Last week I had dinner at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, where I was served just about the worst dinner I have ever not eaten. The service was bad -- surly incompetent waiters who seemed genuinely offended that they should be called upon to wait on their guests -- the presentation was slovenly and the food was dreadful. We who suffered this insult talked at some length about what might be wrong, and my friend Richard Seibert (a professional cook for twenty years, thirteen of them at Chez Panisse, now a fine letterpress printer) put the finishing touch on what I don't like about such schools.

"I had dinner at a cooking school the other night and the food was not just bad, it was inedible. I got incensed. These guys were purporting to teach these kids, who were paying a lot of good money, to cook, and what they were serving was not fit for human consumption. What can these kids learn in this situation but how to slop hogs?

"I have written letters and made phone calls. I have talked to Alice Waters and a food journalist from the New York Times. I have talked to the chef responsible."

At a certain point my friend Lorin said, 'I think you are missing the point. The point of a cooking school is not to teach kids how to cook, it is to provide jobs for chefs who don't want to cook any more.' It struck hard. The students had a notion that they wanted to cook, but instead of going out and learning how to cook by cooking, they decided to go to cooking school.

In a sense, the two deserve each other. I think the same thing is true of art school, and writing schools. I do not think they are designed to teach the touted subject so much as to employ the second rate practitioners of the craft. You can, by definition, only teach what is already known, what has already been digested and understood.

Art is what we make when we confront the unknown, and redefine it in a way that has not been done before. I don't know how creative writing schools work, but I know all of the verse I have seen come out of them has a safe, bland sameness about it. It is predictable. It is clever, but it does not teach me anything about myself."

You can teach technique, but you can't teach art. If you don't teach technique -- which seems somehow to have become de trop -- then you teach nothing, You create only the illusion of teaching. If you want to do art, do art.

If you want to learn how to cook, cook. If you want to learn how to write, then write. Unless you just want to indulge in a huge, expensive and non- productive circle-jerk, stay out of school, it's a waste of time and money. If you want to lose weight, eat less and exercise more. Just do it.

At Chez Panisse, cooking school counted against you. We took on externs, as free labour, but they were rarely hired; but if they were, it was for political reasons (i.e.: sexual orientation) rather than culinary reasons.

Surprisingly the lower grade, cheaper schools produced the better cooks. My guess here is that poorer, talented folk got an access to opportunity that the rich kids simply bought. (Reverse bubble sorting?)

Like you say the talented kids will get what they can and then get out as soon as possible, while the mediocre kids want to get to the job placement assistance programs promised in the glossy brochures as softly as possible.

I can not flat out say "skip school." There are many things which can indeed be taught, and which should indeed be learned. The accumulated wisdom of the tribe (in Pound's sense, not Hillary's). After all, it would be nice to see your brain surgeon's GPA on the wall.

"There is no royal road to geometry." is more what I mean. Going to the Sophist down the street who will accept any student with enough money, to get certified "Geometrist" so you in turn can start giving workshops is the mentality to rant about. It is in a way very much what Plato was talking about in his rants against the Sophists.

A part of Astrid's reply:

"...I honestly do not want to go back to get a masters... but I have pressure from everywhere to do so.... I feel that I must.... The only thing I will put my energy into is writing. And you are right about the mediocrity they inevitably produce but but but but...what to do? Can I be honest? What I really wish for is to be married and write books at home with some sense of peace and stability."

At least she's honest. She doesn't want to write, she wants to be safe, and "be a writer" too.

The kids at CCA don't want to cook, they want to be chefs.

It is not just that they want to put off getting a job, it is that they do not want to work. They want the prestige that comes with the title, but they do not want to invest the time and effort to earn the title. I always (well almost always) described my previous career as "cook." People asked why I don't call myself a chef. I say "Because I'm not one. A chef tells the cooks what to do."

An important point here is that it is often not the student who wants to go to school, it is the student's parents. "O dear, little Sally's interested in art, how is she ever going to make a living? Maybe she has talent, maybe she doesn't, how should we know. Let's send her to the experts and let them tell (rob) us ."

It is the parents who are paying, so it is the parents who are buying.

I recently received email from a total stranger from ...@evergreen.edu asking for "advise [sic] to a young poet." The following was my reply:

"Read Yeats and Jeffers. Read Wordsworth & Coleridge. Read Keats. Read Shakespeare & Spencer.

The only advice I can give any "poet" is to read every thing good ever written. Don't make a fetish of the modern, don't make a fetish of the ancient. Just read, but read with passion.

If you have anything to say yourself, it will come of its own accord. If you don't, at least you will have had the best our literature offers.

Write everyday, and write sonnets, not because they will be any good, but because the exercise will make your free verse freer. Pound wrote a sonnet a day for years, but he is the greatest modern exponent of "free verse." Remember the Wordsworth line "the weight of too much liberty"...

Do not fall into the trap of "feelings," but explore fully feeling.

Write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Cato's advice was to put a manuscript in the bottom drawer for five years before deciding whether or not to publish it.

Nobody cares what you feel. They only care what they feel, and the only way you are going to get them by the balls is by expressing what they feel in ways they never felt before.

Do not talk to me about Ferlighetti, unless you can identify his Shakespeare references. Do not talk to me about Ginsberg, unless you know his Blake and Pound references.

There is no current without past.

Send me a poem. I'll do the same."

Surprisingly, the kid never wrote back. I thought I gave him some pretty good advice; but not, apparently, the kind he wanted to hear.

A really good writing school would have you do nothing but read. The only writing exercises would be: look at this thing you've seen a thousand times before, and describe something you've never noticed before.

A really good art school would have you do nothing but look at everything ever done by anybody any good, and then provide a lab with sufficient tools (and I am adamant about "sufficient" rather than "the best") with advisors to keep them from cutting their fingers off. Kind of like how I learned to print. You taught me enough not to hurt myself, and then let me loose to come up with my own questions, and my own examinations. Thank you again.

A really good cooking school would teach you how to make stock, omelettes, a loaf of bread, French fries, steamed green beans, roast chicken and an apple tart in the first year. I think the essential concept of everything I (at least) know about the mechanics of cooking is contained in these seven dishes.

The second year's first semester would teach you how to know when fruit is ripe, what wine is, and what olive oil tastes like. The second semester of the second year would be all of Escoffier and Prunier. The third year would be "So what do you want to learn?" This is of course, off the cuff, but not, I think, far from the mark.

I have taken on only one cooking apprentice (there is maybe a second in line, I don't know yet, he gets the bean test soon): Yao Fen. Everybody loves to ask me "How do you cook this?" But as soon as I start to tell them, they don't even let me finish my first sentence, they say "O no, I don't use ...." Yao Fen watched, and then did, and then asked questions and then made connections between dissimilar things. Only then did she question my instructions. She questioned after she learned, and this made me want to tell her anything I knew about whatever she wanted to know.

There is another basic assumption underlying all of this which is fallacy : democracy. The dead horse in the living room. Once the cream has risen to the top, what are we going to do with all the watery whey which remains? Send it to school.

Everything is incredibly simple: just do it; but it is incredibly hard to notice what we do not see.

I am sure you get my drift. Sorry to babble on at such length, but the only way to have a few good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.

There is nothing which escapes the dignity of observation.


From a childhood in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, David Lance Goines' life pivoted on his entrance to the University of California at Berkeley where he was witness to the beginning of the social upheavals of the sixties. Trading an academic career for a that of a skilled graphic artist of fine arts posters, his life has become forever linked to his work and his writings.

Return to Table of Contents