Athena’s Syntax of Dependency: a conversation with Rudi Audiens
Athena’s Syntax of Dependency: a conversation with Rudi Audiens
More than you may realise, young people are confronted with fear in various forms. Often radicalisation proves to be the wrong response to this fear. We want to understand the reason for this, try to establish a link between fear and culture, and see what we can learn from this process.
Art projects offer students the opportunity to confront their fears. They learn from each other and their teachers but also vice-versa. And professional artists, whom we gratefully rely on, have their own stories to tell, which stimulate young people to open up and engage.
Creative expression is not only a fundamental human right, it also offers young people the opportunity to learn about themselves and their environment in a liberated way. One recent example illustrates this perfectly: a deeply religious student, with a long beard and dressed in djellaba, came to school in this outfit in the period of the Syrian civil war and immediately aroused suspicions of radicalisation. But during a stop motion workshop he revealed that he was himself very frightened: he felt that he had been deprived of his identity through fear of terrorism. He felt that he was being pigeonholed as a terrorist because of his appearance, which to him was simply an expression of his faith and had no link with terrorism whatsoever. But others projected their fears onto him, which was a hard burden for him to bear. Until then he hadn’t been able to express these feelings.
The GO! Koninkijk Athenaeum of Antwerp, where I worked as science teacher for many years, has a mixed student population of no fewer than 60 ethnicities. Some of these students have strong religious convictions; others don’t. An inter-ideological dialogue between teachers and pupils has not only become part of our programme, but also offers an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas and work together with teachers of various disciplines.
Each of the subjects in the traditional curriculum presents a different set of ways to observe the world around us. But the Athena Syntax programme looks at the world from the unifying perspective of co-habitation and mutual dependency based on the undeniable basic values of human beings. The Athenaeum is a pilot school for this new learning-teaching trajectory and is now a core component of the curriculum.
It all started around the turn of this century, when a number of us teachers started pondering these themes. Karin Heremans, who was appointed head of our school in 2001, had come to realise after years of cross-curricular teaching at a school of art in Antwerp that art projects could be used to provide counter-narratives to radicalisation. But it was the 2011 M HKA exhibition ‘A Syntax of Dependency:’ by the modernists Liam Gillick and Lawrence Weiner that got the ball rolling. The exhibition aimed to stimulate dialogues between generations, cultures, paradigms, autonomy and heteronomy, and between different art forms. We immediately saw parallels in the open space for ideas that we wanted to create in our school.
That’s why in 2010-2011 we set up the think-tank Athena’s Syntax of Dependency in our school – to establish a horizontal dialogue between science, philosophy and art. Originally, this think-tank was designed to give shape to a dynamic partnership between teachers of science, religious education, philosophy and art. Later, this core group was extended to include teachers of history, Dutch and the arts, which resulted in some innovative artistic projects. We planned the project as a six-year trajectory, through which the concept of ‘syntax’ would be introduced to students in three stages – discovering, meeting, developing. The main objectives were: a critical approach to new ideas, daring to express oneself in art projects, working together across all philosophical and scientific subjects, developing social skills and active citizenship – all aligned with the goals of the core educational curriculum.
It’s our aim to promote cross-curricular cooperation and challenge stereotypical thinking. We also work together with external partners such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp, and we invite professional artists to create projects with our students. We opted for a multi-disciplinary approach to show our students that a biology teacher and a teacher of Islamic religion can be excellent partners. We were lucky to have a school principal, Karin Heremans, who fully supported the project, and has considerably contributed to its success.
Fear and culture
The Athena Syntax teaching-learning trajectory focuses on self-discovery in the first grade, discovering each other in the second grade, and finally, in the third grade, discovering the outside world. We want our students to learn that fear is a basic emotion, which is not linked with culture but which is, in essence, a basic instinct for survival in the wild. In this way, our students come to understand that while fear may be inevitable, we can learn to manage it.
The artistic context in which we have these discussions is unthreatening and liberating, licensing students to articulate their messages by using talents and capacities they may not have known they had. Art communicates with and through the senses in ways that transcend the limitations of language, and teaches young people to read and interpret between the lines.
Last school year Stijn Sieckelinck, a researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University, started evaluating the impact of the Athena-syntax programme, measuring changes in perception at each grade to understand the effectiveness of the whole process. We look forward to reading his conclusions.
Art, reflection and the formation of a complex identity
Due to their social-economic and cultural backgrounds, most of our students don’t engage with art in their lives outside school. We show them that art offers a safe environment in which to reflect, to learn to know oneself and others from new points of view, and explore identity in creative ways.
Our students are offered the opportunity to develop a healthy self-awareness in a world filled with uncertainty. At a time when radical discourse threatens to influence young minds, it is vital to allow positive voices to be heard. We are convinced that art can play a crucial role in this process, and in promoting the concept of good citizenship.
A wide range of sensitive issues can be made more accessible through art, and by making connections between philosophy, religion, language, media, science and citizenship. Through the programme, a devout young Muslim, for instance, can not only acquire the technical skills for making films, but also have the opportunity to express his faith in a deeply personal way, address difficult issues like evolution theory, and begin to see the world differently, through the different glasses. It all boils down to cultural reflection, in which finding meaning in life plays a central role and sensitive issues can be addressed. This all happens in an atmosphere of openness which inspires trust. Common values can be articulated and complex identities can be developed, even among students who used to be reluctant to open up and reach out to others.
Challenges for the team
The projects at our school grew organically from a broad reflection on identity and cultural awareness, and from a determination to continually evaluate and adjust our approach with every new insight our experiences give us. The headscarf debate used to be a hot topic at our school a few years ago but since then, the debate has evolved and new challenges have emerged. Addressing these challenges as a team has forged deep friendships between teachers and created space for discussing and addressing sensitive matters, even outside school. We have adopted the attitude that our commitment to the programme is simply part of our mission as teachers and responsible citizens.
One recent innovative project at our school could only have been realised through ground-breaking work by the Athena-syntax task force. From this school year onwards, first-graders seeking extra challenges in science, maths and computer programming can opt for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics). This will give them extra space for imagination, reflection and exploration of some of themes that the traditional disciplines of education touch on but doesn’t adequately address. The students’ engagement with art and creativity across these disciplines will help them see them in a broader social context, and better prepare them for life’s challenges.
Interview: Katrien Van Iseghem (Culture Cure – Culture in the Mirror)
Text: Jan Leyers (Culture Cure – Culture in the Mirror)