Degas shocked the art world in Paris when he showed his sculpture “la petite danseuse, 14 ans” in Paris at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. While some singled out its “extraordinary reality” many described the sculpture as follows: “Ugly.” “Ape-like.” “…she is an example of depravity, of criminality, of the ills of society.” … with a “face marked by the hateful promise of every vice” and “bearing the signs of a profoundly heinous character.” (see here)
Today “la petite danseuse, 14 ans” is a symbol of classic beauty, self-discipline, and possibility. We see her through different eyes. Today, a 14-year-old ballerina most likely comes from a family who can afford dance lessons with parents who have the ability and the inclination to support her dreams. However, back in the late 1800’s, the ballerinas were often young girls who came from very poor families. They danced at the opera because of the opportunity it provided to find a wealthy benefactor. Many of the girls became prostitutes to survive.
In 1891, when the statue was first displayed, the harsh reality of the ills of society was exposed. Therefore, certain features of the statue were highlighted which ‘confirmed’ the opinion that the young girl was ‘criminal-like’ and should not be celebrated. It was easier to blame the girls rather than question the values of society.
Today when we see the statue, the societal context has changed. We now highlight features that ‘confirm’ our opinion that she is composed, graceful and full of potential. Someone to celebrate. Someone to emulate. A symbol of good in society.
Daniel Kahneman, psychologist (Thinking Fast and Slow), tells us that by changing the context, we change how we compare and view situations and people. We do this subconsciously. We look for features that confirm our opinion. It is called confirmation bias.
When I saw the exhibit of Degas’ ‘Little Dancer’ and learned about her story, I wondered what characteristics in people we will be highlighting and celebrating in ten years, fifty years. Our students’ future.
We all have a confirmation bias. Daniel Kahneman said that, when faced with a possible biased situation, he asks himself, “In what situation might this be true?” Adapting that question for teachers, I wonder if we can challenge our biases by asking, “In what context might this characteristic be considered something to celebrate?”