5 Lessons We Can Learn From David Bowie
The huge outpouring of grief that has followed the death of David Bowie made me reflect upon a lot of things. Not least, the shock of seeing him on Top of the Pops in 1983 singing 'Let's Dance' when I was fifteen and sensing the deep sensual, sexual under-current of the song, which both disturbed and attracted me -- uptight, ignorant school boy that I was! After that initial encounter, me and a couple of friends took a fantastic voyage into his back catalogue, leaving his 'New Romantic' phase behind. We discovered Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory and all the other phases of his career up until that point for ourselves: the Dionysian alien, the Thin White Duke, the Soul Singer, and the Electronic Existentialist. Without the internet, this process of learning about him meant quite a bit of digging around in record stores and older people's album collections. We gained a sense of person who was consistently re-inventing himself, who told us that our appearances, our thoughts and feelings, our genders even were fluid, and could be changed with an effort of will. His records opened the world for us beyond the narrow world of our minor public school with its tedious 1950s grammar school curriculum and its explicit and implicit prejudices. Bowie was a more effective instructor than any of our teachers; we learnt to see the world afresh, to feel passionate about books and art and to love the sensation of discovery. I think this was because Bowie himself was, above all, a "learner" in the deepest sense of the word: he adopted new personae so that he could learn new things about the multiplicity of worlds that we all inhabit. This is something I want to think more about, because I feel there's a "pedagogy" to be found in Bowie's work. Anyway, here are the five things I think we can learn most from him almost “off the top of my head”:
1. The Power Of Promiscuous Collaboration. Bowie was an inveterate and promiscuous collaborator, hopping from band to band, from producer to producer etc, to find new ways of expressing himself. I think there's a pedagogy to be learnt here; the power of working with people needs to be emphasised, but also the power of changing who you work with. Children can become very conservative about who they work with in the class, only wanting to work with one person/group. I think Bowie's example shows how fruitful it is to "hop" around with collaborators, to "jigsaw" constantly.
2. Don’t Rely On The Same Old Tricks. I think the way Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust is inspirational; he could have gone on having hit after hit with Ziggy, but he killed him off, and went on to something new after only a year or two. I think teachers can learn from this; don’t rely on the same old approaches (that may have worked), try something new; it will keep you fresh and engaged, and will work if you believe it will.
3. Adopt Different Personae. Bowie really illustrates how life is a performance and that acknowledging this can be empowering. I think teachers could learn from this and acknowledge that they don’t have to be the same person for the whole of their career. This might mean changing their image or outlook. Basically it means avoiding wearing “the same old suit since 1962” as Morrissey puts it in Headmaster Ritual. Be someone different every now and then! Say something that’s the opposite to what you said a couple of years ago! Like things you used to dislike and vice versa. I think being a bit mercurial keeps students on their toes. They never quite know what to expect. Bowie taught us that the unexpected is good.
4. Academic qualifications are no indication of intelligence. Bowie failed the 11+ and got one O Level -- obviously the education system profoundly failed him. And yet, of all the rock stars, he was definitely one of the most intelligent.
5. Aesthetic learning is the heart of life. Above all, Bowie’s work showed us how he fell in love with different modes of expression and modes of being. He was an “aesthetic learner”; he realised the most profound kind of learning is “aesthetic”; a process of reflection on how you feel about things. Life is about the appreciation of different kinds of beauty; the awareness that “fair and foul are near of kin” as Yeats says in the Crazy Jane poems. He constantly found new ways of expressing his thoughts & feelings about people, art and the universe and articulated those feelings for us. This is what all great teachers do; they share and convey their sense of wonder with their students. And yes, ultimately, Bowie was a great teacher. I certainly learnt a lot from him.