Creativity vs. Quants

The New York Times

By Timothy Eagen

March 21, 2014

Here’s how John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man,” as he recalled it in an interview that ran just before he was murdered in 1980: After working five hours trying to craft a song, he had nothing to show for it. “Then, ‘Nowhere Man’ came, words and music, the whole damn thing as I lay down.”

Here’s how Steve Jobs came up with the groundbreaking font selection when Apple designed the Mac: He had taken a class in the lost art of calligraphy and found it “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” Ten years later, it paid off when Apple ushered in a typeface renaissance.

And here’s how Oscar Wilde defined his profession: “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

We’ve bottled lust. We’ve refined political analysis so that nearly every election can be accurately forecast. And we’ve compressed the sum of education for an average American 17-year-old into the bloodless numbers of standardized test scores. What still eludes the captors of knowledge is creativity, even though colleges are trying to teach it, corporations are trying to own it, and Apple has a “creativity app.”

But perhaps because creativity remains so unquantifiable, it’s still getting shortchanged by educators, new journalistic ventures, Hollywood and the company that aspires to be the earth’s largest retailer, Amazon.com.

An original work, an aha! product or a fresh insight is rarely the result of precise calculation at one end producing genius at the other. You need messiness and magic, serendipity and insanity. Creativity comes from time off, and time out. There is no recipe for “Nowhere Man,” other than showing up, and then, maybe lying down.

The push for Common Core standards in the schools came from colleges and employers who complained that high schools were turning out too many graduates unprepared for the modern world. That legitimate criticism prompted a massive overhaul affecting every part of the country. Now, the pushback, in part, is coming from people who feel that music, art and other unmeasured values got left behind — that the Common Core stifles creativity. Educators teach for the test, but not for the messy brains of the kids in the back rows.

In relaunching his data-driven FiveThirtyEight website this week, Nate Silver took a swipe at old-school commentators. He recalled the famously off prediction of Peggy Noonan, who criticized people “too busy looking at data on paper” to pick up on the “vibrations” of a Mitt Romney victory in 2012. “It’s time for us to start making the news nerdier,” Silver wrote in his manifesto.

Data journalism has certainly done much to clean up the guesswork in a profession still struggling to find its way in the digital age. On election eve, it’s far better to look at the aggregate of all scientific polls than to listen to a pundit’s hunch. But numbers, as Silver himself acknowledged, are not everything in the information game. Satire, journalism’s underappreciated sibling, belongs to the creative realm. And there are no quants on the planet who could write Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” or a decent episode of “The Daily Show.”

Nor could they produce an original film. Sure, they’ve tried. Most of Hollywood’s big budget, so-called tent-pole openings are the net result of exhaustive crunching of the elements of a hit. A robot can write a screenplay — about robots fighting one another! — that is just as effective at the box office as the fart-joke formula of an Adam Sandler movie. Before a major release, audiences are tested and polled, and producers fix and calibrate.

In the end, it’s just product, matching audience preferences. So it was encouraging to see a big-name Hollywood director, Darren Aronofsky, the filmmaker behind the upcoming epic “Noah,” show some defiance against the numbers men. “Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla,” he said in The New Yorker. “I’m the rocky road guy.”

Book publishers, cowering in the shadow of Amazon.com, deserved their kick to the head when the online company forced them to drag their archaic business practices into the 21st century. But they can take heart that Amazon, trying to crowd source and metrically mold its way into producing its own “content,” has stumbled. Amazon works by gathering data on millions of readers and then giving the same thing back to them. The oldest tale of publishing, or filmmaking for that matter, is the orphaned, oddball story that became a smash. Everyone rejected it because, well, it wasn’t like anything else.

At Amazon, the quants rule. Daydreaming, pie-in-the-sky time and giving people room to fail — the vital ingredients of creativity — are costly, the first things to go at a data-driven company. As a business model, Amazon is a huge success. As a regular generator of culture-altering material, it’s a bit player. Why? It has marginalized messiness.

Learning to Think Outside the Box Creativity Becomes an Academic Discipline

The New York Times

By LAURA PAPPANOFEB. 5, 2014

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Students in creative studies at Buffalo State College posted key points to being a creative thinker. Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

IT BOTHERS MATTHEW LAHUE and it surely bothers you: enter a public restroom and the stall lock is broken. Fortunately, Mr. Lahue has a solution. It’s called the Bathroom Bodyguard. Standing before his Buffalo State College classmates and professor, Cyndi Burnett, Mr. Lahue displayed a device he concocted from a large washer, metal ring, wall hook, rubber bands and Lincoln Log. Slide the ring in the crack and twist. The door stays shut. Plus, the device fits in a jacket pocket.

The world may be full of problems, but students presenting projects for Introduction to Creative Studies have uncovered a bunch you probably haven’t thought of. Elie Fortune, a freshman, revealed his Sneaks ’n Geeks app to identify the brand of killer sneakers you spot on the street. Jason Cathcart, a senior, sported a bulky martial arts uniform with sparring pads he had sewn in. No more forgetting them at home.

“I don’t expect them to be the next Steve Jobs or invent the flying car,” Dr. Burnett says. “But I do want them to be more effective and resourceful problem solvers.” Her hope, she says, is that her course has made them more creative.

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Cyndi Burnett teaches Introduction to Creative Studies at Buffalo State College. Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

Once considered the product of genius or divine inspiration, creativity — the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions — is being recast as a prized and teachable skill. Pin it on pushback against standardized tests and standardized thinking, or on the need for ingenuity in a fluid landscape.

“The reality is that to survive in a fast-changing world you need to be creative,” says Gerard J. Puccio, chairman of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College, which has the nation’s oldest creative studies program, having offered courses in it since 1967.

“That is why you are seeing more attention to creativity at universities,” he says. “The marketplace is demanding it.”

Critical thinking has long been regarded as the essential skill for success, but it’s not enough, says Dr. Puccio. Creativity moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation and is, he says, “the higher order skill.” This has not been a sudden development. Nearly 20 years ago “creating” replaced “evaluation” at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives. In 2010 “creativity” was the factor most crucial for success found in an I.B.M. survey of 1,500 chief executives in 33 industries. These days “creative” is the most used buzzword in LinkedIn profiles two years running.

Traditional academic disciplines still matter, but as content knowledge evolves at lightning speed, educators are talking more and more about “process skills,” strategies to reframe challenges and extrapolate and transform information, and to accept and deal with ambiguity.

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Annoyed by restroom doors that are always broken? Matthew Lahue, a junior, designed the Bathroom Bodyguard.
Jim Lahue

Creative studies is popping up on course lists and as a credential. Buffalo State, part of the State University of New York, plans a Ph.D. and already offers a master’s degree and undergraduate minor. Saybrook University in San Francisco has a master’s and certificate, and added a specialization to its psychology Ph.D. in 2011. Drexel University in Philadelphia has a three-year-old online master’s. St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, N.C., has added a minor. And creative studies offerings, sometimes with a transdisciplinary bent, are new options in business, education, digital media, humanities, arts, science and engineering programs across the country.

Suddenly, says Russell G. Carpenter, program coordinator for a new minor in applied creative thinking at Eastern Kentucky University, “there is a larger conversation happening on campus: ‘Where does creativity fit into the E.K.U. student experience?’ ” Dr. Carpenter says 40 students from a broad array of fields, including nursing and justice and safety, have enrolled in the minor — a number he expects to double as more sections are added to introductory classes. Justice and safety? Students want tools to help them solve public safety problems and deal with community issues, Dr. Carpenter explains, and a credential to take to market.

The credential’s worth is apparent to Mr. Lahue, a communication major who believes that a minor in the field carries a message. “It says: ‘This person is not a drone. They can use this skill set and apply themselves in other parts of the job.’ ”

On-demand inventiveness is not as outrageous as it sounds. Sure, some people are naturally more imaginative than others. What’s igniting campuses, though, is the conviction that everyone is creative, and can learn to be more so.

Just about every pedagogical toolbox taps similar strategies, employing divergent thinking (generating multiple ideas) and convergent thinking (finding what works).The real genius, of course, is in the how.

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Edwin Perez’s FaceSaver keeps your phone from falling. Cyndi Burnett

Dr. Puccio developed an approach that he and partners market as FourSight and sell to schools, businesses and individuals. The method, which is used in Buffalo State classrooms, has four steps: clarifying, ideating, developing and implementing. People tend to gravitate to particular steps, suggesting their primary thinking style. Clarifying — asking the right question — is critical because people often misstate or misperceive a problem. “If you don’t have the right frame for the situation, it’s difficult to come up with a breakthrough,” Dr. Puccio says. Ideating is brainstorming and calls for getting rid of your inner naysayer to let your imagination fly. Developing is building out a solution, and maybe finding that it doesn’t work and having to start over. Implementing calls for convincing others that your idea has value.

Jack V. Matson, an environmental engineer and a lead instructor of “Creativity, Innovation and Change,” a MOOC that drew 120,000 in September, teaches a freshman seminar course at Penn State that he calls “Failure 101.” That’s because, he says, “the frequency and intensity of failures is an implicit principle of the course. Getting into a creative mind-set involves a lot of trial and error.”

His favorite assignments? Construct a résumé based on things that didn’t work out and find the meaning and influence these have had on your choices. Or build the tallest structure you can with 20 Popsicle sticks. The secret to the assignment is to destroy the sticks and reimagine their use. “As soon as someone in the class starts breaking the sticks,” he says, “it changes everything.”

Dr. Matson also asks students to “find some cultural norms to break,” like doing cartwheels while entering the library. The point: “Examine what in the culture is preventing you from creating something new or different. And what is it like to look like a fool because a lot of things won’t work out and you will look foolish? So how do you handle that?”

It’s a lesson that has been basic to the ventures of Brad Keywell, a Groupon founder and a student of Dr. Matson’s at the University of Michigan. “I am an absolute evangelist about the value of failure as part of creativity,” says Mr. Keywell, noting that Groupon took off after the failure of ThePoint.com, where people were to organize for collective action but instead organized discount group purchases. Dr. Matson taught him not just to be willing to fail but that failure is a critical avenue to a successful end. Because academics run from failure, Mr. Keywell says, universities are “way too often shapers of formulaic minds,” and encourage students to repeat and internalize fail-safe ideas.

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Chanil Mejia and Yasmine Payton present their big idea, a campus chill spot, in Introduction to Creative Studies. Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

Bonnie Cramond, director of the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia, is another believer in taking bold risks, which she calls a competitive necessity. Her center added an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in creativity and innovation this year. “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields,” she says. When ideas from different fields collide, Dr. Cramond says, fresh ones are generated. She cites an undergraduate class that teams engineering and art students to, say, reimagine the use of public spaces. Basic creativity tools used at the Torrance Center include thinking by analogy, looking for and making patterns, playing, literally, to encourage ideas, and learning to abstract problems to their essence.

In Dr. Burnett’s Introduction to Creative Studies survey course, students explore definitions of creativity, characteristics of creative people and strategies to enhance their own creativity.These include rephrasing problems as questions, learning not to instinctively shoot down a new idea (first find three positives), and categorizing problems as needing a solution that requires either action, planning or invention. A key objective is to get students to look around with fresh eyes and be curious. The inventive process, she says, starts with “How might you…”

Dr. Burnett is an energetic instructor with a sense of humor — she tested Mr. Cathcart’s martial arts padding with kung fu whacks. Near the end of last semester, she dumped Post-it pads (the department uses 400 a semester) onto a classroom desk with instructions: On pale yellow ones, jot down what you learned; on rainbow colored pads, share how you will use this learning. She then sent students off in groups with orders that were a litany of brainstorming basics: “Defer judgment! Strive for quantity! Wild and unusual! Build on others’ ideas!”

As students scribbled and stuck, the takeaways were more than academic. “I will be optimistic,” read one. “I will look at tasks differently,” said another. And, “I can generate more ideas.”

Asked to elaborate, students talked about confidence and adaptability. “A lot of people can’t deal with things they don’t know and they panic. I can deal with that more now,” said Rony Parmar, a computer information systems major with Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones circling his neck.

Mr. Cathcart added that, given tasks, “you think of other ways of solving the problem.” For example, he streamlined the check-in and reshelving of DVDs at the library branch where he works.

The view of creativity as a practical skill that can be learned and applied in daily life is a 180-degree flip from the thinking that it requires a little magic: Throw yourself into a challenge, step back — pause — wait for brilliance to spout.

The point of creative studies, says Roger L. Firestien, a Buffalo State professor and author of several books on creativity, is to learn techniques “to make creativity happen instead of waiting for it to bubble up. A muse doesn’t have to hit you.”

Laura Pappano is writer in residence at Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College and author of several books, including “Inside School Turnarounds.”

Adolescent Girls Report Dance Has Positive Influence

By Gina Cairney on January 25, 2013 

Parents looking for worthwhile activities for their children may want to consider dance classes, especially for daughters who don’t seem interested in sports that come off as “too physical,” or may be experiencing low self-esteem or lack confidence.

Researchers found that dance intervention had a positive influence on self-rated health for adolescent girls in Sweden, which lasted up to a year after the program ended.

Some 140 girls, ages 13 to 18 years, participated in the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics. The girls selected for the study had visited the school nurse with complaints often associated with stress or low self-esteem, symptoms not serious enough to warrant a mental health referral. About half of the girls were randomly assigned to the intervention group, where they were given dance classes twice a week for 8 months. Each class lasted 75 minutes with an emphasis on the joy of movement, rather than performance, the study says, with various themes like African dance and jazz.

By the end of the program, 48 girls remained and were surveyed on their experience, with 43 of the girls rating it as a positive experience, three girls rating it neutral, and only one girl who found it to be a negative experience.

Adolescence is the time of life where everything seems awkward, and all that can go wrong, seems to go wrong. This and other stressors have an effect on how young people perceive themselves, and according to Statistics Sweden, girls are three times more likely than boysto rate themselves to have poor health.

This study’s suggestion to use dance as a preventative health measure is also supported by another study which looked at the prevalence of dance participation in the United States, and its contribution to total moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise in adolescents.

The Swedish study does acknowledge some limitations to its research however, noting that evaluating self-rated health is very subjective and the participants may have reported higher values to please their instructors.

Regardless, the potential influence dance has on young girls who are experiencing emotional problems appears to be significant. It’s also important to consider the factors that make dance an appealing physical activity to girls.

Based on survey responses, the study found three possible key factors explaining why the girls reported feeling better:

• The dance intervention was enjoyable and undemanding,
• There were opportunities for girls to offer input in music selection and dance choreography, and
• The opportunity allowed them to make new friends who had similar interests, which may be the most critical factor in maintaining interest in the program or activity.

While all physical activity of some kind is important for the overall well-being of a child, dance programs may be the ideal ticket for some parents who have children—daughters and sons—who want to participate in a social activity without the overbearing competitive nature of sports like soccer and basketball.

Arts as Antidote for Academic Ills

A New York Times article about the importance of arts in schools.

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

The artist Chuck Close giving a private tour of his show to students from Bridgeport, Conn.

Stationed in front of one of his large self-portraits, the artist Chuck Close raised his customized wheelchair to balance on two wheels, seeming to defy the laws of gravity.  The chair’s unlikely gymnastics underlined the points that Mr. Close was making to his audience, 40 seventh and eighth graders from Bridgeport, Conn.: Break the rules and use limitations to your advantage.

The message had particular resonance for these students, and a few educators and parents, who had come by bus on Monday from Roosevelt School to the Pace Gallery in Chelsea for a private tour of Mr. Close’s show. Roosevelt, located in a community with high unemployment and crushing poverty, recently had one of the worst records of any school in the state, with 80 percent of its seventh graders testing below grade level in reading and math.

Saved from closure by a committed band of parents, the school was one of eight around the country chosen last year to participate in Turnaround Arts, a new federally sponsored public-and-private experiment that puts the arts at the center of the curriculum. Arranging for extra funds for supplies and instruments, teacher training, partnerships with cultural organizations and high-profile mentors like Mr. Close, Turnaround is trying to use the arts to raise academic performance across the board. “Art saved my life,” Mr. Close told the children. And he believes it can save the lives of others, too.

So now he was giving a pizza party and answering a question about why he started to paint.

“I wanted people to notice me, not that I couldn’t remember their faces or add or subtract,” he said, referring to the learning and neurological disabilities that set him apart from his classmates when he was growing up in Monroe, Wash.

A terrible writer and test-taker, Mr. Close used art to make it through school. Instead of handing in a paper, he told the children, “I made a 20-foot-long mural of the Lewis and Clark trail.”

Starting in Pace’s large central gallery, where his giant portraits of other artists like Philip Glass, Paul Simon and Laurie Anderson looked on, Mr. Close told the group that “everything about my work is driven by my learning disabilities.”

Born with prosopagnosia, a condition that prevents him from recognizing faces, Mr. Close explained that the only way he can remember a face is by breaking it down into small “bite-sized” pieces, like the tiny squares or circles of color that make up his paintings and prints.

“I figured out what I had left and I tried to make it work for me,” he said. “Limitations are important.”

With Mr. Close were a few other members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which helped develop the Turnaround program. One of them, Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who is a mentor to two other Turnaround schools, picked up on his theme.

“In dance we limit ourselves, as well,” he said. “There are five positions and everything comes from that,” he added, quickly demonstrating the basic ballet poses.

Filling out the cultural spectrum were the Broadway producer Margo Lion, a chairwoman of the committee, and the musicians Cristina Pato, Shane Shanahan and Kojiro Umezaki, all members of the Silk Road Ensemble, an international collaboration founded by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is also a committee member and a mentor. One by one, they entered from different doors, startling the students with an impromptu concert featuring a tambourine, a gaita (a Spanish bagpipe) and a Chinese flute.

Clapping and stamping in time to the music, Mr. Woetzel soon turned the gallery’s open space into a dance floor. A couple of students whipped out phones to record the proceedings, while others raced across the room to avoid getting pulled in as participants. One reluctant dancer, captured by Rachel Goslins, a filmmaker and the executive director of the president’s committee, rolled his eyes and mouthed “Oh my God” as she circled him around the floor. Other students joined hands and began dancing as Ms. Lion and the school principal, Tania Kelley, her head flung back, swung each other around.

Mr. Close swerved through the crowd in his wheelchair.

“I never danced before,” Carolyn Smith, 13, said excitedly when the music stopped. “Usually I sing.” Carolyn was the lead in the school’s production of “The Wiz” last year. A brain tumor had caused her to miss so much school that her literacy teacher initially wanted her to turn down the part and focus on catching up, Ms. Goslins said. But being in the play — and reading and memorizing the script — helped her reading skills so much, Ms. Goslins said, that the literacy coach later told her, “I’m a believer.”

The afternoon offered a series of firsts for many of the students. Most had never seen such instruments, heard of Mr. Simon or Mr. Glass, or even visited Manhattan.

“It’s pretty cool to be in New York,” said David Morales, 14, who later asked Mr. Close about his technique, explaining, “I like how he makes it, how it comes all together.”

David, like the other Roosevelt students, had studied Mr. Close’s work in class and met him when he visited the school last month. So Mr. Close patiently answered questions.

“Is it easy to make these pictures?” (Well, it can take a while, Mr. Close replied.)

“How do you know what colors to use?” (Trial and error.)

“Can you draw? (Yes.)

“There is no artist who enjoys what he does every day more than I do,” Mr. Close told the group, setting off applause from the students. Repeating advice he often gives to young artists, he said: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up for work.”

When the bus arrived for the return trip, Ms. Pato and Mr. Shanahan again took up their instruments, this time to lead a parade of clapping students and teachers out the door.

Carolyn Smith, a pink rose in her hair, paused at the doorway and turned to Mr. Close. “I had a blast,” she called out. “Bye, Chuck. See you later.”

Yoga Class Draws a Religious Protest

From The New York Times

T. Lynne Pixley for The New York Times

Miriam Ruiz during a yoga class last week at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. A few dozen parents are protesting that the program amounts to religious indoctrination.

By WILL CARLESS

ENCINITAS, Calif. — By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing.  “Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes — part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego — represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” Ms. Eady said. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”

Ms. Eady and a few dozen other parents say a public school system should not be leading students down any particular religious path. Teaching children how to engage in spiritual exercises like meditation familiarizes young minds with certain religious viewpoints and practices, they say, and a public classroom is no place for that.

Underlying the controversy is the source of the program’s financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who is considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its Web site, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest. Mr. Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group’s broader evangelistic purpose.

“There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program,” he said.

“The analog would be if we substituted for this program a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program,” he said.

The battle over yoga in schools has been raging for years across the country but has typically focused on charter schools, which receive public financing but set their own curriculums.

The move by the Encinitas Union School District to mandate yoga classes for all students who do not opt out has elevated the discussion. And it has split an already divided community.

The district serves the liberal beach neighborhoods of Encinitas, including Leucadia, where Paul Ecke Central Elementary is, as well as more conservative inland communities. On the coast, bumper stickers reading “Keep Leucadia Funky” are borne proudly. Farther inland, cars are more likely to feature the Christian fish symbol, and large evangelical congregations play an important role in shaping local philosophy.

Opponents of the yoga classes have started an online petition to remove the course from the district’s curriculum. They have shown up at school board meetings to denounce the program, and Mr. Broyles has threatened to sue if the board does not address their concerns.

The district has stood firm. Tim Baird, the schools superintendent, has defended the yoga classes as merely another element of a broader program designed to promote children’s physical and mental well-being. The notion that yoga teachers have designs on converting tender young minds to Hinduism is incorrect, he said.

“That’s why we have an opt-out clause,” Mr. Baird said. “If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose, you’re invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else.”

Ms. Eady is not convinced.

“Yoga poses are representative of Hindu deities and Hindu stories about the actions and interactions of those deities with humans,” she said. “There’s content even in the movement, just as with baptism there’s content in the movement.”

Russell Case, a representative of the Jois Foundation, said the parents’ fears were misguided.

“They’re concerned that we’re putting our God before their God,” Mr. Case said. “They’re worried about competition. But we’re much closer to them than they think. We’re good Christians that just like to do yoga because it helps us to be better people.”

Nun Uses Music to Convey Spirited Message Against the Vatican’s Rebuke

  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times
  • Sister Kathy Sherman, with the Congregation of St. Joseph, writes popular and folk songs and sees music as part of her ministry.
By
Published: December 1, 2012, The New York Times

LA GRANGE PARK, Ill. — When Kathy Sherman was in college during the final years of the Vietnam War, she played the guitar with friends in her dorm room and sang folk and protest songs over bowls of popcorn. They sang Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and some friends said her voice reminded them of Judy Collins.

Ms. Sherman graduated and joined an order of Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, but she never stopped making music. Last spring, when the Vatican issued a harsh assessment of the group representing a majority of American nuns accusing them of “serious doctrinal problems,” Sister Sherman, 60, said she responded the way she always does when she feels something deeply. She wrote a song.

The words popped into her head two days after the Vatican’s condemnation, as she was walking down the hallway in her order’s ministry center, feeling hurt and angry: “Love cannot be silenced,” she thought. “It never has. It never will.” She went into the center’s dining room and tried out the lyrics on some of her sisters. They liked the message.

“Love Cannot be Silenced” became an anthem, not just for the nuns but also for laypeople who turned out for vigils in front of churches and cathedrals across the country this year to support them. In a voice sweet and resolute, Sister Sherman sang, “We are faithful, loving and wise, dancing along side by side, with a Gospel vision to lead us and Holy Fire in our eyes” — a lyric that evokes the nuns’ novel forging of spirit with steel.

“I see it more as a song of affirmation than a protest song,” Sister Sherman, her gray-green eyes sparkling, said in an interview in October at her religious community’s ministry center here outside Chicago. “I wasn’t protesting anything. I was saying, ‘This is our story.’ ”

Sister Sherman’s story reflects the journey of so many nuns of her generation. She grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, when Catholic women’s and men’s orders were booming and it was natural for a Catholic girl to consider a life as a nun. After college, she became a teacher at a girls’ school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, and was attracted to the order’s community life and its ideals of unity and inclusiveness. But by the time she entered the order in 1980, at age 28, the boom was over.

At the time, the sisters were in the midst of a major evolution. The Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1965, had decreed that religious orders should re-examine the writings of their founders in order to reconsider their particular mission and character, or “charism.” The U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph sent a delegation to France to study the documents written by their founders — six women and a Jesuit priest. They concluded that their charism was far more expansive than just teaching and nursing.

“There it was, right in print,” said Sister Pat Bergen, who joined the order in 1963 and now serves on the congregation’s leadership team, recalling the excitement. “We can do anything women are capable of doing, as long as what we do enables unity to happen. So the sisters became prison ministers and artists and began following their gifts.”

Sister Bergen and Sister Sherman spoke over breakfast in the community’s sunny dining room, where women were preparing to set off for work dressed in everything from sweatsuits to tailored blazers and skirts.

Sister Chris March headed upstairs to her massage and healing practice. Sister Janet Bolger boarded a bus called the “School on Wheels,” a mobile classroom run by her order, where she and others teach immigrant adults English one-on-one. Sister Mary Southard went to her studio upstairs to paint. Sister Marianne Race, wearing a denim shirt stitched with the St. Joseph logo, descended to the basement where she manages St. Joseph Press, which produces calendars, notecards and wall hangings sold through the congregation’s “Ministry of the Arts.”

The Congregation of St. Joseph, with 650 sisters, was formed when seven independent groups of Sisters of St. Joseph merged in 2007. One member is Sister Helen Prejean, whose work with convicts on death row was the subject of the film “Dead Man Walking.”

Sister Sherman’s ministry evolved too. She composes popular and folk songs — she has recorded 21 CDs — as well as music for liturgies. She also leads spiritual retreats across the country, coordinates her community’s environmental sustainability effort and is helping to produce a curriculum on nonviolence for schoolchildren in the Chicago Archdiocese.

She used to live in the ministry center, but she now lives with two other sisters and a novice in a house nearby where she can garden and cook. She rises at 5:40 a.m., prays in her room for about 45 minutes and then joins the others in the living room for communal prayers. Many days she goes to work in her studio on the sixth floor of the ministry center, a complex that also houses an “eco-spirituality library,” rooms for low-income women and a modern sanctuary with stained glass windows designed by Sister Southard.

“I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness. The contemplative life nurtures my ministry, and my ministry nurtures my contemplative life.”

Her studio is a refuge, a long room dominated by a black Young Chang piano (a Steinway was out of reach). There is a prayer plant, a picture of her mother, who taught piano, and a plaque that says “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Her long fingers on the keys, she played pieces she wrote at pivotal moments: the start of the Iraq war; the murder of a nun, by an ex-convict, in a Buffalo halfway house she ran; the height of the political vitriol in the last presidential election, in a song she titled “This Is the America I Believe In.”

“A lot of the music I write is not religious, per se,” she said. “It’s got religious values, it’s got spiritual values. The songs may not name God, but they may name the hope, the peace, the love. For me, they are all names for God.”

That evening she met in the sanctuary with a women’s singing group she started recently out of the belief that people do not sing together enough anymore. There were four nuns and 11 laywomen, including one who had asked Sister Sherman over during a storm, around midnight, to sing to her dying mother.

Bouncing on her toes, Sister Sherman conducted as if the women were an orchestra. “Good! Pretty!” she shouted as they navigated unfamiliar lines in Xhosa in a South African piece. “Keep the rhythm going.” They ended with “Love Cannot Be Silenced.”

“It’s an anthem,” Sister Sherman told them. “Go ahead, stand up! Rise up!”


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Sister Sherman’s studio is in the congregation’s ministry center in La Grange Park, outside Chicago.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Her song “Love Cannot Be Silenced” became an anthem after the Vatican’s rebuke of the group representing the majority of American nuns.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Sister Sherman has recorded 21 CDs and recently started a women’s singing group, concerned that people do not sing together enough anymore.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times

    Other sisters in the congregation paint, work in prisons and teach English to adult immigrants.


  • Daniel Borris for The New York Times
    “I don’t just pray and go to work,” Sister Sherman said. “My work is my prayer. They’re not separate. It’s a wholeness.”