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Sep 25, 2012

"The Art of Building Good Ideas," A Public Lecture by Irvin Mayfield at Tulane University

Tulane University

Lavin-Bernick Center (LBC)-Kendall Cram Lecture Hall

Monday, September 24, 2012

Good evening.  I want to thank Kenneth Schwartz, Dean of the School of Architecture for having the courage to allow me to speak to the great but impressionable minds of the city.  I also thank the entire faculty and staff for your continued efforts to advance design not only here in the city but around the world.  I sit on an amazing advisory board that constantly gapes in awe of the school’s accomplishments.

As a board member of the National Endowment for the Arts I can’t say enough about the struggle to get all professions to see art in their work.  Throughout the speech, I will refer to architects as artists because you are.  I will also refer to your projects as artwork.  But I don’t limit my labeling to designers.  We all have the power to create. We can all be artists.  I’m amazed at how many people ask me, “where did you get the inspiration for that song?”  Another commonly asked question is, “where do you get the ideas for your music?”

I jokingly reply that I don’t come from the species homo artisticus.  Last time I checked, we all have pretty much the same mental plumbing.  We all have the mechanics to farm and grow brilliant creations.  How we harvest those ideas depends on what skills you chose to bring them to their physical form. If we have the same plumbing, the operative question is, Will you have the courage and commitment to extract and refine a particular idea?  Will you have the compassion to acknowledge the consequences of unearthing ideas?  And will you make your ideas good ones?

Human beings are idea factories. We are wired to imagine.  Ideas lodge in our brains without our explicit permission.  If you’re still long enough, ideas will surface like buoys.  I love the opening of the motion picture Inception. Inception is a 2010 science fiction film written, co-produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, “a thief who commits corporate espionage by infiltrating the subconscious of his targets.”

In the opening scene, Cobb asks intently, “What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?”  Cobb then answers his own question and states, “An idea – resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain its almost impossible to irradiate.  An idea that is fully formed, fully understood – That sticks.”

I wouldn’t describe ideas as parasites.  However, ideas survive well beyond their creators.  All the greatest achievements started as a whisper of a thought certainly smaller than a flea. Ideas emerge in any setting and under multiple conditions.  How many thoughts were conjured since I started talking?

The question for us today is how can we get the next Taj Mahal out of you?  There is a Golden Gate Bridge floating around someone’s head.  There’s a Love Supreme waiting to be unleashed. Marcus Tullius Cicero stated, “It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.”  Cicero is speaking to today’s topic.  There is an art to building good ideas.

You will probably find it either incredibly amusing or very profound that a professional artist cannot nail down a definition of art.  Therein lies the first challenge I encountered in drafting a lecture titled, “The Art of Building Good Ideas.”  Art lives in the same fluid space as the terms “community” and “culture.”  How do you define these ideas?  Should you define art, community or culture?  As soon as I would attempt to define these things, invariably an academic will demonstrate how inadequate that particular definition is.  However, most know art, community and culture when we hear it, see it or feel it.  Just because it lacks definition, doesn’t mean its not there.

In general, I tolerate a base notion of art as the manifestations of our imaginations.  That broad definition has always given me pause because everything would be considered art.  I know this not to be the case every time I see what’s popular on ITunes.  Is the beige paint that we see on lifeless walls the products of our imagination? Every student in this room knows the difference between a presentation of PowerPoint slides and a well thought out and delivered lecture.  Hopefully, I will provide an example that drives home the distinction.

I can’t accept everything as art because many of our ideas are cheap facsimiles of someone else’s creativity.  Creativity is the freedom and tools to realize our imaginations.  Creativity allows us to reach the goals of our imaginations. A few of us dare to move into a mental realm that is mundanely human but nonetheless exceptional. We can only reach our highest human potentials by being creative.  Therefore, art reflects someone’s creative efforts to bring their imagination to life.

Art is very personal.  It is made personal by the care we invest in our creativity. After dropping out of Reed College, Steve Jobs decided to take a calligraphy class.  Jobs “learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”  Steve Jobs became intimately connected into developing a craft.  When I read this fact about Jobs’ life, it also became clear to me that the refinement of creativity is craftsmanship.  Craftsmanship transforms a person’s character.

Jobs goes on to say about calligraphy that “None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

Time and care are the transformative elements of craftsmanship. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar stated, “Humans are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise both will wither and die.”  I always argue that art is necessary for my very survival.  A skill you learn may seem finite, but the impact of craftsmanship shapes the soul.  I don’t separate ideas and their creators.  Both need nourishment.

Consequently, those who dare to make themselves vulnerable to an idea often establish a committed relationship with it. The committed relationship will create art that is impactful in areas beyond the explicit purpose.

Given how horribly beige our world is becoming, clearly we aren’t tapping into the infinite capabilities of our creative minds.  I think we’re becoming less creative because we’re becoming less committed.  How many of us are willing to say, “Till death do us part” for anything in our lives.  We change professions, relationships, and give our wonderful ideas one-night stands.

Consequently, we take the easy route.  We copy.  Our products don’t reflect the infinite possibilities of our imaginations. We’ve been denying the world incredible pieces of art because we refuse to commit to using our imaginations and refining a craft.

Building yet another strip mall is not artful.  Too many songs qualify more as commercials than as art.  We are so off kilter that we’re confusing copying machines as artist.  We should certainly nick-name some artists as Xerox.  I will have my discussion on hip-hop later in the lecture.  Nevertheless, art is about imagination, personal creativity and commitment.

Art also has much to do with representing the material and emotional world in ways that illuminate what’s hidden in our imaginations.  Art has the power to move us when words or beige paint simply can’t. Hannah Harrington in Saving June said,

“He took his pain and turned it into something beautiful. Into something that people connect to. And that's what good music does. It speaks to you. It changes you.”

Harrington captured the power that all art holds.  Those who can tap into our creative/spiritual/inspirational selves – those parts that make us uniquely human – should be considered artists.

Therefore, the art of building a good idea involves imagination, creativity, commitment and representation.  Now comes the building part.  While I am completely secure in presenting a conceptualization of art.  I’m not so secure in defining what it means to build in a room full of designers.  However, I will do my best.

I would like to use some basic principles or concepts of design to highlight what it means to build a good idea.  For this section, I will discuss what I think are core elements of building a good idea.  These elements include space, materials, durability and purpose.

Albert Einstein said, “Space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”  When we talk of space we must talk of time.  Organizing sound around space and time is music composition.  The brilliance of the four-note motif that opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony illustrates the importance of timing.  The first four notes may be the most recognizable in Western music.  Some of Louis Armstrong most masterful work occurred while playing within a song.  Improvisation is the artful understanding of timing.  Beethoven, Armstrong and Jobs understood the importance of space through their commitment to developing a craft. Instead of understanding the space between notes, Jobs deeply appreciated the space between different letter combinations.  Again, their skill development gave them an understanding about the space in which their craft existed.

When we talk about space and time, we should speak about specific sociopolitical contexts.  Beethoven composed within a specific cultural aesthetic, which critics and artists set the standards for.  Armstrong’s work was part of a larger cultural discourse that included musicians, racial communities and poor folk.  Music involves listeners who are inextricably linked to specific cultural spaces.  We appreciate their contributions, but we can only do so within our immediate contexts.

We generally think of space as distance between objects.  However, when we include people and their sociopolitical contexts, we’re really talking about the distance between our art and the people it will effect.  I want to emphasize the assumed relationship between ideas and people.

Good ideas nurture lasting relationships.  I’ve been honored to work directly with people like Ellis Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis and Gordon Parks.  Because ideas survive their creators, I am personally connected to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.  Good ideas show reverence to the family of ideas that have come before.  However, good ideas do not commit idolatry.  Idolatry leads to copying.  Allowing Marsalis, Parks and Morton’s ideas to help develop my craft brought me closer to a community of similar artists.

One of my favorite songs became so because of my relationships with my dad and Ellis Marsalis.  My father, a former trumpet player, was a member of the New Orleans fraternity of performers.  He tried to haze me through is lighthearted challenges and humbling innuendoes.  He used to say, “You just got here kid, you’ve got a long time.”  I never paid it much attention because I knew that he actively ushered me into a community of ideas.

In the music world, it’s often hard to distinguish between family members and teachers.  My father was my father.  However, I had intellectual fathers that I guess I should call my uncles.  When you’re in a network or a family of scholars, you just assume that everyone will be there.  Katrina did away with all those assumptions.  It took so long to confirm my father’s death.  I lost a father and a teacher.

One of the last projects that he heard of me was a recording with one of my “uncles,” Ellis Marsalis. I was so excited about the recording, not just because I got to work with my former teacher, but because of the fresh standard songs and the opportunity to record with the Louisiana Philharmonic. Ellis and I also recorded the song Yesterday by the Beatles.  Alas, like so many good things, the impact of Katrina stole yet another part of my father’s record.  The floodwaters took every picture that I possessed of my dad.  What the floodwater didn’t take, heat and humidity did.  I no longer had the masters of the recordings with Ellis Marsalis.

I have a ritual.  When I finish making a record, I immediately delete it from my IPod.  It’s my way of moving on.  As fate would have it, I kept the Ellis Marsalis recordings on my IPod.  I still miss my dad so much, but every time I hear the songs I recorded with Ellis, my dad becomes so present.  This music is now my only clear photograph of him.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away

Now it looks as though they're here to stay

Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Suddenly, I'm not half to man I used to be,

There's a shadow hanging over me.

Oh, yesterday came suddenly.

Why she had to go I don't know she wouldn't say.

I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.

Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play.

Now I need a place to hide away.

Oh, I believe in yesterday.

Audre Lorde said it best, “Poetry is not a luxury.”  Our art, your creations, will have an effect on an individual, family or town.  Our ideas are good if the relationships they create are positively functional ones.  I chose to exclude a lengthy discussion on form and function in this lecture.  I believe the function of developing a positive relationship with the people your art connects to will greatly influence its form.  Art in this regard is a community relations project. Our creations constantly interact with culture and the people who sustain it.  That is not to say that we shouldn’t create for ourselves.  In fact, we should always make space to create in the open rooms of our imaginations.

However, designers can certainly appreciate how our built environments require constant reminders that art continuously interacts with many people and communities. Multiple people are involved in good ideas.  Good ideas are not unidirectional.  There’s little good in a dictatorship.  Good ideas are reciprocal, even democratic, in nature.

Let’s use the I10 overpass as an example.  Historically, Claiborne Ave. was the commercial corridor for the African American community.  Business and residents lined either side. Majestic oak trees adorned Claiborne’s neutral ground.  These neutral grounds served as the community’s meeting table. Claiborne’s broad shoulders provided enough space for activities of all kinds.  Claiborne hosted parades, cookouts and late night strolls. Folks escaped the Louisiana heat under the cooler shade of the oaks.  Claiborne Avenue literally laid the groundwork for the black community.

However in the 1960s, French Quarter residents fought the original plans to build Interstate 10 along the river through the French Quarter.  French Quarter residents and preservationists waged a successful campaign to change the original plans of the interstate’s construction.  Planners then sought alternative routes.

The width of Claiborne made for an ideal site, particularly if people weren’t considered.  As the story goes, planners built the I10 over the oldest sections of Claiborne, which barreled through the oldest community of free people of color, Treme.  Not only was the commercial sector decimated by disconnected planners, it placed concrete over culture. The street that once held businesses and residents became barren parking lots.  The economic vitality of the black community fell sharply.  Social life soon followed.  Today, parts of Treme have some of the lowest life expectancies in the city according to an Orleans Place Matters report.  People in the Treme are living approximately 20 years less than those living in other parts of the City.

Cement may change culture but it doesn’t destroy it.  One of the most festive sections of Mardi Gras occurs under the I10 bridge along Claiborne and Canal.  Painted renderings of oak trees lay like shadows on interstate supports.  These are in the same places where live ones used to stretch out their branches.  Just as traditions of celebration didn’t fade, disdain for the city officials, planners and architects never dissipated.  Concrete just held the emotions of the past.  To date, the residents of Treme have fought Jim Crow segregation and community destruction via the I10.  Currently, they are fighting gentrification and escalating housing prices.  The vestiges of discrimination literally face Treme residents every day.

The story of Treme represents the black community in New Orleans.  It also represents the interactive nature of our art.

Like other black communities, Treme is still striving to self-determine.  I encourage all of you to read Angel David Nieves book, “We Shall Independent Be.”: African American Place Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States.  The title is long but it’s explanatory.  Nieves is a fellow architect.  Designers, particularly in the South must be fully aware that blacks have been in a constant “struggle over landownership and property rights” since their arrival to the Americas (page 10). What we build as artists competes with other people’s vision of how their community should look and function.  All artists compete with others who are trying to claim their own space.

You should know the history of space claiming in the United States.  During my time as a Commissioner for the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, I saw first hand the persistence of history.  History can’t be erased, because people can’t be erased.  Planners have no choice but to embrace history, both good and bad.

When you design, remember the concepts of redlining and residential segregation as well as the battle for schools and educational spaces.  Town and gown relations, which is a description of the association between colleges and their residential neighbors, have been contentious for black communities.  University expansion often results in the retrenchment of corresponding local communities.  University ideas often do the same.

In general, the art of building good ideas requires serious conversations with the community where space is going to be claimed.  One of the best research methods classes an artist can take is one that teaches face-to-face interviewing skills.  No disrespect to Beethoven, but some of the best musicians are deaf.  They don’t listen to anyone but their own imaginations.  While this can produce incredibly skilled and imaginative art, I don’t thinks it helps build good ideas.  Artists must expand their gift of understanding spacing to include the larger sociopolitical context.

In the New Orleans setting, know that what you build falls within a larger context of blacks’ quest for self-determination.  The long time residents of Treme don’t want functional schools, restaurants and homes as much as they want to decide how those things are built.  Moreover, the highly skilled residents of Treme want to build their own structures. Nevertheless, whatever you decide to build will establish a connection between you and a community.  Will the structure be neighborly?  The nature of the relationship will determine whether or not you have a good idea.

Throughout the lecture, I’ve alluded to what I mean by “good idea.”  I talked about the reciprocal nature of a good idea.  I mentioned that a good idea come from a committed relationship with it. Allowing the same intimate conversations you have with your imagination will increase your chances of building a good idea.  Good ideas are positively shared.  And there are other virtues that are involved.

By “good ideas”, I’m talking about those pieces of art that promote justice, courage, selflessness, self-reliance and temperance.  By building good ideas, I mean that we should create constructs that are non-discriminatory and inclusive.  In the main, good ideas are those we commonly understand to fall within a moral or ethical frame.    However, it may be helpful for me to discuss what I don’t think goodness is.

I’m certainly not talking about the pursuit of happiness.  Aristotle and other have made solid claims that we engage in numerous activities that make us happy.  Several of you chose to pursue a career in design because it makes you happy.  While I certainly hope you are happily refining your craft, it’s a greater concern of mine that you are joyfully doing good work.

In addition, good ideas are not necessarily those that are the most durable.  Durability has more to do with issues of materials, maintenance and power.  We know the durability of plastics and the tradeoffs of its usage.  We could remove the I10 overpass if we wanted to. There’s no shame in replacing statues and schools that were dedicated to segregationists.  Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “Longevity has its place.”  We create art with the intent that it will last.  However, sometimes it’s best that it doesn’t.  The purpose behind our creations’ intentions should have more say in determining an object’s longevity.

The point is that I believe durability to be a lower level consideration as to how good something is. Let use the example of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the World.  From my understanding, it’s one of the few times design classes make a stop in Africa.  But I digress.  Clearly, based on grounds of durability, material, space and time, the Great Pyramid is an incredible structure that has lasted centuries, but is it a good idea?

Egyptologists widely believe that the Great Pyramid of Giza served as a tomb for the Pharaoh Khufu and his wives. At its max height, this particular pyramid stood about 481 ft. For 3800 years it was the tallest structure in the world.  Each side was 756 ft. long.  Its weight is estimated to be 5.9 million tons. Architects and archeologists believe that it took between 10 and 20 years to build.  To build it within the 20-year period, architects estimate that the laborers or the enslaved moved around 800 tons a day.

I acknowledge its magnificence in terms of the planning, effort, size, materials, and form. But how can we not conclude that pyramids were incredible monuments of vanity?  Thousands of Egyptians lived and died to care for the few.  Dozens were buried alive to take care of dead Pharaohs. Without question, the Great Pyramids are testaments to the prominence of Egyptian civilization. It is also monumental evidence of how space is wasted if there isn’t an ethic of care around people.  As you know, pyramids are some of the most durable but inefficient uses of space you can create.  There are many reasons, why we’re not building pyramids, with the exception of Las Vegas of course.

I know this is an oversimplification of the pyramids, but at the end of the day, they were built to service a Pharaoh at enormous cost to other people’s happiness.  Whether it is a 7th wonder of the world or a highway over a historic section of town, the idea of oppression has unfortunately endured.  These examples illustrate why I appreciate but I’m not necessarily impressed with the notion of durability when building good ideas.

However, I do believe the good ideas last.  Henry David Thoreau said, “Goodness is the only investment that never fails.”  We can build art that endures.  However, will it be monuments of vanity or dedications of community?    This leads to an absolutely critical component of building good ideas.  Goodness is often measured by its purpose.

Helen Keller wrote, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”  When we are in those caverns of creativity, we must train ourselves to honestly ask, “What is the purpose of this idea?”  Why am I creating this piece of art?  When we ask ourselves these questions, we must rise above utilitarian notions of purpose.  You’re not just building a bank or a school.  You should be able to see the larger purpose.

Khalil Gibran said, “Let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.”  When we talk to our ideas, let’s not devalue them with frivolous or nefarious purposes.  Our purposes must be imbued with basic virtues of goodness.  Otherwise, we run the risk of painting our monuments of vanity beige.

The music industry is rife with creativity but our purpose is often wanting.  When its 4:00 AM and the piano keys are staring at me as if to ask, “why aren’t you sleep,” questions of purpose echo in the room and melodies emerge.  Because music is both the product of good thinking and inspiration for good ideas, often I will listen to a new release, go back to a classic or turn on a music video channel.

One particular night, I decided to turn on the television.  Jay-Z’s 99 Problems came on. For the hip-hop snobs out there, you know why I chose the example of Jay-Z after a discussion of pyramids.  For those who are not familiar with the Roc Dynasty, Jay-Z positions his hands over his head in the form of a diamond or pyramid.  Again I digress.

The chorus of the song 99 Problems boasts, “If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you son I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one.”  The song was released in 2004, long before he conceived the idea of his new daughter Blue Ivy.

Before I continue, I want to make sure that you know I’m not against Jay-Z.  Don’t tweet Irvin Mayfield has beef with Jay-Z.  I want to have a discussion on hip-hop and use the trope of Jay-Z.  I’m not critiquing Jay-Z personally, for there are literally thousands who carry the idea of Jay-Z.  I lift this song in particular to illustrate the concept of purpose.  So, what was the purpose of 99 Problems?  Why use the B-word?

Immediately in the first stanza, Jay-Z offers a rebuttal to the critiques he seemingly knew others would dish out.  He writes,

I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol

Foes that wanna make sure my casket's closed

Rap critics that say he's "Money Cash Hoes"

I'm from the hood stupid what type of facts are those

If you grew up with holes in your zapatos

You'd celebrate the minute you was having dough

I'm like fuck critics you can kiss my whole asshole

If you don't like my lyrics you can press fast forward

Got beef with radio if I don't play they show

They don't play my hits well I don't give a shit SO

Rap mags try and use my black ass

So advertisers can give em more cash for ads...fuckers

I don't know what you take me as

or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has

I'm from rags to riches nigga I ain't dumb

I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one

Hit me

Again, he predicted pushback for his loose use of language in the hook by rationalizing it with I’m from the hood and this is all I know excuse.  We’ll suspend the fact that Jay-Z has been out of the hood since the early 90s, which he alludes to in numerous songs – Niggaz in Paris is Exhibit A.  At the end of the day, the song is about money, cash, hoes and the problems that come with it.

If there is a theme in hip-hop that has been done, it’s money, hoes and clothes made famous by the Notorious B.I.G.  So the song isn’t about being creative.  If he connected with his audience and understood their social condition, would he have used the B-word so recklessly?  Now that he has a daughter, how will his music change? Where is the goodness in the song?  Mostly everyone experiences problems of envy and hate so what do you have to offer as solutions?  How does this particular piece of art add to the larger discourse of gun violence and violence against women?

I lift this example to illustrate that popularity should not be the index of artistry.  It certainly should not be used to measure what is good.  Sadly, Jay-Z may be so fully ensconced in the community that he has become a pyramid.  We shouldn’t dare not to play his music.  However I, along with other artists, struggle with the commercialization of art.  I am not above this very same critique.  In fact, the same critique that I’m applying to hip-hop was applied to jazz writ large.  The backgrounds of yesterday’s jazz stars are indistinguishable from today’s rap celebrities.

Fidelity to a worthy purpose will distinguish a Jay-Z from a Louis Armstrong.  Louis Armstrong, who was a son of a prostitute, a thief, thug and run of the mill juvenile delinquent, ultimately used his craft to become an ambassador for an entire country.

It wasn’t until after police arrested an eleven year-old Louis for shooting a firearm, did he engage with organized music.  Authorities placed Armstrong in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, now known as the Milne Boys Home. Immediately upon arrival, Master Armstrong wanted desperately to join the Waif’s Home Brass Band.  After weeks of fiddling with instruments left straggled by members, officials allowed Armstrong to join the band.  My fellow NEA board member Terry Teachout describes in his book, POPS, how a young Armstrong started on the “tambourine, then drums, then alto horn.  Eventually he became the band’s first-chair cornetist” (p. 36).

However Armstrong’s purpose elevated his stature to its proper place as a world leader.  Teachout recounted, “His travels had caught the eye of the New York Times, which ran a front-page story informing its readers that “America’s secret weapon [in the Cold War] is a blue note in a minor key.  Right now its most effective ambassador is Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong” (p. 2)

I think Jay-Z and other artists may reach levels where they are being used for world peace.  However, the purpose behind 99 problems won’t get them there.

I think we are getting closer to understanding the art of building good ideas.  First, good ideas require reflection and courage to bring ideas to the surface.  Building a good idea requires imagination, creativity and commitment. The form of good ideas comes through conversations with those impacted by it. They are democratic in nature.  Good ideas show reverence without moving into hero worship. You use immaterial virtues as the building blocs to create durable structures.  In addition, there should be a willingness to let structures go when they become divisive.  Finally, the purpose of the idea should be noble enough to inspire peace.

I would like to close with a final charge to the School of Architecture and Tulane University.  I did not talk about how artists literally learn the skills that farm our ideas. Despite emerging criticisms of higher education, colleges and universities are still some of the few safe spaces in which great ideas are born, dismantled and advanced.

From innovations in irrigation, to helping map the human genome, to the expansion of the World Wide Web, colleges and universities’ returns on investment are immeasurably positive.  Colleges heighten conversations on ethics. We preserve and advance art and culture.  We partner with industry to meet the economic demands of the country.  Nevertheless, after centuries in which intellectual advancements have positively correlated with economic growth, people are questioning the value of higher education.

Universities aren’t afraid of challenges.  Colleges literally thrive on criticism.  Throughout history, conservative governing boards, civic governments and others have questioned the academy’s loyalty to the state, perceived political bias and shared governance structures.  In the face of these skeptics, higher education and its unique traditions realized unprecedented growth and stability.  We forget that colleges in the Americas existed before the United States of America.  However, recent challenges threaten the core of the higher education enterprise.

If anything is true, the first and second Land Grant Acts solidified higher education’s purpose as being to increase access.  The Morrill Land Grant acts expanded postsecondary education to the masses.  Immediately prior to the Land Grant Act of 1867, leaders recognized that as the country grew so must access to knowledge.

Today access is still an issue.  According to the Louisiana Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, of the 1096 licensed architects in the state 16 are black.  That amounts to 1.5%.  There are only 18 African American architects with Ph.D.s in the country.  Let me repeat myself.  There are only 18 African American with doctorate degrees in architecture.  The gender split is stark as well.  Of all the licensed architects in the country, 22% are women.

In the early Twentieth Century, farmers and other agriculturalists needed the most impactful technological farming innovations to improve their own lots and to help a country grow.  Today, that purpose translates to a knowledge economy that includes software and web development, database administration, computer systems analyses, programming, engineering and design.  Instead of teaching farmers how to farm, we must catapult the least likely college graduates into the knowledge economy.

In a city that can claim to the greatest engineering disaster that the United States has ever faced, we have to do more to build capacity for future ideas to emerge. One program that is building capacity of our youth is Project Pipeline.  “Project Pipeline is a program established by the National Organization of Minority Architects in 2009 to encourage young students to pursue a career in the Architectural profession. The program consists of summer camps that have been successfully developed by Local NOMA Chapters across the country.”  I am pleased that designers in the New Orleans NOMA chapter successfully matriculated dozens of students through the camp right here on Tulane’s campus.

Unfortunately, many students in the local area come from low-income backgrounds that predict for a need for loans, which lessens one’s chances towards graduation. Colleges were not made to make smart people poor.  Escalating prices and our dependency on loan dollars lessen the integrity of one of higher education’s central pillars of purpose.

The truth is, academic programs must design new models to deliver an education.  Should it take a certain number of years to certify that a person has acquired sufficient amounts of knowledge to become proficient in design?  Does it take a college of education to teach effective teachers?  Clearly, Teach for America and other non-profits have been charged to answer that question for us.  Couldn’t an internship or apprenticeship teach most of what lawyers do on the day-to-day basis?  I believe that colleges and universities are the best places for intellectual growth, but we must apply the same framework that has been offered here today.  We need to build good ideas around college access.

In music, New Orleans is exhibit number one when discussing alternative forms of knowledge transfer, dissemination and advancement.  High culture in New Orleans revolves around music.  Some of the most important contributions to civilization particularly in the modern era come from intellectuals who can’t tout their formal educational accomplishments.  Nonetheless, greatness was developed without a loan structure.

As board chair for the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, my role is to make information accessible.  If we expect to matriculate students from places like New Orleans into the Tulane School of Architecture, we have to enrich the overall learning environment.  Learning occurs everywhere.  Yes we need good schools.  We also need good public libraries, museums, laboratories and concert venues.  Good ideas must also meet people where they are.  Remember, Louis Armstrong’s roots as a world leader started in a juvenile detention center.  Higher education can’t confine itself to a campus.

It shouldn’t take too long to reflect and acknowledge that rising costs among all higher education institutions is limiting accessibility.  Then we must have the courage to allow new ideas to surface that could address this problem.  We should include students, families and higher education officials in the discussion.  Higher education must be imaginative. Building a good idea requires creativity and commitment.  Colleges and universities can’t become the next pyramids.  We have to show reverence to our former models but we should not allow them to limit our ideas. We must use the same immaterial virtues that made us so durable.

As Ghandi famously said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Thank you.

© Copyright 2010 Irvin Mayfield - All Rights Reserved