Don’t try to pigeonhole Eugene F. Provenzo Jr. It won’t work.
The professor emeritus from the University of Miami’s School of Education is a Renaissance man whose interests – and qualifications – reach far beyond his title.
“By way of my background, I’m a much more interdisciplinary scholar than most social foundations professors. I’ve got degrees in history, philosophy and history of education,” Provenzo says. “I branched off fairly early in my career, and I started looking at a much wider range of topics than I think is considered normal.”
What Provenzo truly enjoys is finding “the patterns that connect” the seemingly obscure and unrelated; his academic scavenger hunts are lined with clues in toys, fables, photographs, marine life, world’s fairs, computers, poetry, science, video games, books, puppets and more.
Uncovering those links reveal “a much more complex and interesting universe,” he says.
“I’m trying to get people thinking and understanding that there’s a deeper level of connection with things,” Provenzo says, “and if we paid more attention to these things, we’d be more at ease with the world.”
Provenzo is the 2017 recipient of the James and Helen Merritt Distinguished Service Award for Contributions to Philosophy of Education, an award given by the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.
He will deliver the annual Merritt Address, titled “An Educational Cabinet of Curiosities: 40 Years of Research in the Philosophy, History and Sociology of Education,” at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, in the Holmes Student Center Skyroom. A reception begins at 3:30 p.m.
Named for the late James Merritt, philosopher of education and professor in the College of Education, and the late Helen Merritt, artist and professor of art history in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the series spotlights scholars who have deeply influenced educational thought and practice.
All are welcome to attend; email [email protected] for more information.
“Professor Provenzo embodies the Merritts’ commitment to the creative development of the function of philosophy of education in teacher education,” says Leslie A. Sassone, an associate professor in Foundations of Education. “With the changing climate of higher education, Dr. Provenzo will also appeal to students across the university who struggle with making meaning of their own schooling, as well as the current state of public education.”
Provenzo named his presentation after a centuries-old cultural endeavor in which he is a modern and enthusiastic participant.
“Going back to the late Renaissance, naturalists and art collectors – people sort of interested in the world, geography, things like that – began to collect objects together in large exhibit rooms. They would have collections of books, geological specimens from the natural world, paintings, sculpture. It was really the beginning of the first scientific laboratories,” he says.
“What I have done for this talk, and maybe it’s because I’m a serious artist, is that I’ve thought about this in terms of an exhibition hall,” he adds. “Where I live in Virginia, there is extremely strong artistic tradition of landscape paintings – a lot look alike – whereas someone like myself is doing 10 or 15 things that may not look like they come from the same artist.”
He plans to walk his audience through, and around, a dozen of his fascinations and their broader meanings, from a 19th century photograph of a young, female teacher on the frontier of Idaho who’s harboring a dark secret to a look at how early advances in printing parallel the computer revolution.
These finds and other “crazy stuff that show up in the same context” come from trips into libraries and rare book rooms, where he pokes though the shelves for “what’s odd, what’s pushed out, what’s in a corner.”
When books or magazines pique his curiosity, he pages through them looking for places to start or continue an intellectual journey.
Educators should adopt and espouse his philosophy of curiosity to the practice of teaching-and-learning, he says.
“I’ve come to realize that we might be on a kind of dead-end approach to teaching,” he says. “We’re taking the joy out of things – the joy of discovery, the joy of creating things – and that’s a good bit of what education should be about. I always think that this stuff is self-evident. We need less testing and more creative play.”
Consequently, he will encourage teachers to do more than “teach to the test.”
“What do we need to know to be educated? Johann Sebastian Bach? Yes, but we also ought to know who Led Zeppelin is. Transgender? Lipstick lesbian? Those words maybe as important as a lot of other terms,” Provenzo says.
“If you ask me who’s more important in terms of social history – Queen Elizabeth or Queen Latifah? – I’d say that we maybe need to know both of those people,” he adds. “That’s probably a fairly radical point of view, but I’d like people to be more critical and inclusive.”