Hair: a generative theme?

The great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire recognized that the most effective educational methods are based on students’ exploring themes related to their own lives. (See The Power of Advertising project Context chapter.) In Freirean dialogical education, these are called “generative themes” because they generate energy and ideas. Typically, we think of these themes as being conceptual and specific--things such as high rates of unemployment, lack of affordable housing, gender inequity, or racial profiling.

Usually themes are identified during group discussion about current issues in the community. Any teacher who has moderated such discussions knows that sometimes these theme-identification sessions can be stimulating and charged; the students are excited to have the opportunity to talk about issues that count for them. At other times, such discussions can be a teacher’s nightmare; the students seem bored and lackadaisical and most don’t contribute any ideas to the discussion. It’s one of those “pulling teeth” kind of days that are psychologically exhausting for teacher and student alike. Freire identifies the theme of such times as “the theme of silence.” Having spent years in a school system that does not require or value their active participation or personal concerns, students are sometimes not conscious of issues and ideas that may profoundly effect the possibilities of their lives.

In such a situation, methods of art education, based on actual artmaking processes, can create opportunities for students to freely explore the cultural ramifications of a subject without the pressure to “make a statement” or be immediately socially relevant. While our commitment as citizen educators makes it important to connect the curriculum of the art room to students’ lives, it’s also important to actually introduce students to the power of artmaking as a tool for re-looking, re-thinking, and re-imagining our society.

Too often “political art education” puts students on the spot by asking them to come up with a position in relation to some issue and to then make an illustration to represent their positions. This leads to kitsch art because the student artists are not actively investigating and expanding upon an idea; they are merely trying to picture things that they already know.

In a conversation with Paulo Freire, the American educator Ira Shore asked, “How can we adjust the sights and sounds of this moment to stimulate unfamiliar critical attention in the students?” As art educators, we can make use of non-linear aesthetic methods of making the familiar strange and of using these methods to identify themes and issues in the community.

The Hair Today project is a great example of choosing a single, deceptively simple subject to explore visually and verbally and to then encourage the investigation of that subject to unfold into many topics. Talking about hair often generates insights concerning race, social class, school groupings, the cultural basis of judgments of beauty, religious decrees relating to the human body, self-acceptance, value systems, and much more.

Students research information about hair styles and interview family members about their “hair history.” Without fanfare, this often generates authentic multi-cultural curriculum in which students listen to stories about each others’ experiences and associations. The Hair Today project is fun for students; it focuses on something they all spend time thinking about on a personal level. As the students engage in the repetitive task of learning to draw hair, they have time to reflect on the deeper cultural implications of the subject.

Olivia Gude


Average number of hairs on the head: 100,000
One of many facts you can find on a site:
Hair: the Daily Fascination from a group called ThinkQuest:

Information rich site on Hairstyles, Fashion, and Costume

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair" was first published as a story in the Saturday Evening Post story on May 1, 1920. It occupies an important position in the Fitzgerald canon as a witty early treatment of a characteristic subject that he would later examine more seriously: the competition for social success and the determination with which his characters - especially the young women - engage in it. The story was based on a detailed memo Fitzgerald wrote to his younger sister, Annabel, advising her how to achieve popularity with boys: "Cultivate deliberate physical grace." (See the complete letter in Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, pp 15-18.)

Cutting one’s hair short was a social and political statement for women in the 1920s. This story can be a good stimulus to a student discussion about other times in which choice of hair style makes a statement. An interesting and passionate conversation can be created by asking students if such choices are effective ways of expressing personal commitments.

For the complete text of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair:”

For information on braids, weaves, and dreads --how to make them, how to care for them, who wants them, what they mean.