March 25, 2017: Chinese Ministry of Education Address

Since 2009, 19 top universities in China have been getting about $20M a year (each) from the Ministry of Education to develop programs to better educate the top tier university students at those schools. To us, these would look something like Honors programs, although the underlying mission is to identify and promote those who are deemed “gifted and talented.”

In 2017, at the annual meeting that the Ministry convenes of these schools, I was among four foreign individuals who were asked to talk about our strategies for working with “gifted and talented” students.

Here is the link to that presentation.

Saturday, March 25, 2017
Shandong University
Jinan, China

“Bridge over the City”

“Bridge over the City” (1991)
by Richard Britell (1944-)
28 x 44.5 in., oil on roofing tin
Coppola Collection

Born in Utica, NY, Richard Britell lives and works in Housatonic, MA. He has had numerous solo exhibitions in New England and New York, and has featured in several group exhibitions. This painting depicts the Pont Honoré Mercier Bridge, which passes over the St. Laurent Seaway between Montreal and its southern suburbs.

No image can do justice to this piece. It is painted on scrap metal that is bolted to a wooden frame. Its industrial nature is half of the charm. The painting was on display at a gallery in the Berkshires and had been long unsold.

Pop Culture

The X-Men… the Avengers… Guardians of the Galaxy… Luke Cage… Captain America… Doctor Strange… Daredevil… Iron Man… Thor… it is truly amazing to me that these characters and their stories are household names, making billions of mainstream dollars across multiple media. Fifty-five years ago, Marvel was an upstart comic company, a skeleton remnant of a WWII company in a field dominated by the “DC” stable of heroes. I can tell you, back then… once you hit high school you did not automatically run around talking about reading comics or talking about the adventures of these characters.

I was that kid. And, as it turns out, there was a growing, albeit silent, cult of Marvel.

In fall 1966, Marvel probably increased its growing market share by presenting five different animated programs that showed every afternoon, in the spot between “after-school” and “dinnertime.” I think they got huge exposure. Thirteen episodes each of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and Sub-Mariner were accomplished lickety-split by using an animation technique that any child might use today with a scanner, a bit of picture editing software, and a tool for stitching together still frames with an audio track.

And (lest we forget) this was the era of 3-5 VHF broadcast TV stations backed up by a grainy UHF station or two… and no way to record anything unless you had a movie camera pointed at the broadcast. Your choices were see-it-live or miss-it.

The result was rather crude by any standards of animation, even for the time (but it is not worse than South Park, which has always been unwatchable for me).

They (rather brilliantly and efficiently, I would say) used photocopies of the published comics as the source for most of the art, which means that the art staff needed to be able to trace, more than anything else. The basic dialogue was also already written.

By doing this, they also preserved the look of the artwork, and the tone of the stories, from the comics.

In fall 1966, I was about to turn 10 years old, part of the late boomer birth-year demographic that had the absolute highest number of births in the US, in a given year (ever), 1957. I grew up with the standard DC heroes (Superman, Batman…) and these Marvel TV cartoons absolutely introduced me to their stable. And, I can tell you, absolutely inspired me to the comics. Although I cannot say I thought about the significance, I did notice that the stories and drawings on TV matched the look and style of the books, and recall thinking of this positively.

Ten year-olds have finite discretionary income (I think I was getting 50 cents a week allowance), and over the course of 4 weeks that could net you 10-12 comics with change left over for the Marvel bubble gum with the collectable cards inside.

We of a certain age, who grew up with these characters, are probably the ones responsible for moving the heroes into the mainstream. We have certainly been responsible, through our nostalgia, for pushing the price of the original art through the roof – and if you think buying this art is recapturing a piece of one’s youthful memories, I think you would be spot on correct.

Over in the Gallery, I have been posting pages of original comic art that celebrate their fiftieth anniversary of publication, starting with my oldest piece of art from this “Silver Age of Comics” (Hulk #6, p 2, March 1963, posted in March 2013).

Here is a comparison of the fifth episode of the 1966 Captain America cartoon series, where I have taken screen captures and lined them up with the pages from Avengers #4 (1964), which featured the modern era return of the Captain America character.

Avengers 4, page 4 (1963)

Still frames taken from the fifth episode of the 1966 “Captain America” cartoon.


Avengers 4, page 6 (1963)

Still frames taken from the fifth episode of the 1966 “Captain America” cartoon.

More stills from the cartoon, where you can see various edits of the same image.

“All New X-Men 4 p 3” (February 2013)

“All New X-Men 4 p 3” (February 2013)
by Stuart Immonen (1967-) and Wade Von Grawbadger ()
11 x 17 in., ink on paper
Coppola Collection

After 50-something years, Marvel dug back to the original five core X-Men characters from 1963, and dropped them into the present day along with some premise about how they cannot go back. In the past few years, they have evolved a lot of their characters, featuring a younger and more diverse demographic make-up. But for the X-Men, they just brought the younger versions of themselves into the present … Connecticut Yankee… Strangers in a Strange Land.

This page is a wonderful example of primo comic art styling. The summary script line:

Cyclops and Magneto come face to face with the five original X-Men.

The depiction is just as beautiful as it is imaginative. How to illustrate seven people staring at one another?

“Avengers 38 p 6” (March 1967)

“Avengers 38 page 6” (March 1967)
by Don Heck (1929-1995) and George Bell (Roussos) (1915-2000)
13 x 21 in., ink on paper
Coppola Collection

Fifty Years Ago!

Hercules is overcome by a love potion made by the Enchantress, accompanied by Ares. Under her control, he attacks the Avengers. With the Avengers help, he is brought back to his senses, but because he left Olympus, he is exiled on Earth by Zeus. The Avengers decide to house him for the duration in an act of friendship.

This issue of the Avengers picks up Hercules’ story from Thor #132.


Gifted and Talented

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in China, I was invited to return about three weeks later (this week) to give a talk at a meeting being organized by the Ministry of Education.

The schools being hosted at this meeting are the 19 institutions that were charged, in 2009, with developing programs for “gifted and talented” students.

These programs have given these schools an unusual chance to explore some customized and non-standardized curriculum experiments, which is usually tough to do because the curricula in China are all centrally mandated.

For the most part, these programs are comparable to “Honors” programs in the US. A selected group of students can take smaller classes with different pacing and emphasis than their mainstream counterparts. At many of the schools, the students in the “gifted and talented” stream are not only able to finish most, if not all, of their undergraduate coursework (which is substantial) in three years, but they are eligible for partial fellowship support that enables them to travel to a foreign country for the senior undergraduate research.

There is an underlying tension in the educational system in China whose real resolution is going to be tough to achieve. The country is accustomed to picking a target, throwing resources at it, and getting fast results. The country is also restless for being able to create genius as a product of its education system. The “Nobel Lust” is palpable.

Unfortunately, I think that genius, at least the sort of genius that lends itself to Nobel Prizes, is not so much trained for as it is the result of a cultural orientation and context.

The invitation I got needs to be understood from the perspective I have described above, because the request was to answer the question “What do US universities do for gifted and talented students?” (including the sub-text “…so that we can do it, too”).

The talk is an opportunity to educate, because the question itself is flawed. The question carries that underlying sort of desperation that one is only lacking a key piece of information needed to effect a change.

I have said it before and I am saying it again: if information alone was enough to effect change, there would be no physicians who smoked, were sedentary, or who were overweight (or, for that matter, who participated in any medically ill-advised behaviors).

And ‘behavior’ is the key word. Behaviors are social, psychological, emotional, and not at all cleanly isolated from your whole self. You cannot just pull on the one thread.

Certainly, teaching and learning are complex behaviors that are highly socially constructed. And there are plenty of people in the US making the mistake that factual information about teaching (‘research-based instructional practices’ as they say) can transform a bad teacher into a good one.

Give a weapon to an idiot, I tell you, and all you get is a weaponized idiot.

It was tempting to give a short, glib talk.

“We do not do anything in higher education for the ‘gifted and talented’ population. This is a legal term that applies to the top 4-6% of students, as judged by some criteria, who are in the pre-college educational system. Thanks for the invitation. Next speaker.”

I have been mulling over this idea of talent and decided that I need to try and take on the reason that the question is the wrong one but reply to it anyway. The question is merely the entering point.

I will spare you the details, but here is the big picture (and as of this writing, it is still a week to the talk, so who knows how this might change in seven days).

I think there are two models for thinking about talent. These two models are our friends, Nature and Nurture.

Let me stick with the two extremes as the way to think this through.

Our jobs as educators are either to locate the talented out from the crowded pack, or to develop and cultivate the talent of the available pool of candidates.

Two of my early slides, then, will set this up.
Then I go in for the kill.

On the one hand (talent as Nature), the use of the discipline in the curriculum is as a gateway, or a filter, through which we locate the pre-existing talent.

On the other hand (talent as Nurture), the discipline really is just a way of knowing, and it can provide a connection and a pathway for some, and serve a broader good as a source of analogy for others to use in other areas.

If you cannot figure out which side I favor, and which side is, at least, historically representative of our culture, then I have been a dismal failure in presenting these cases.

Two recent things point to the US educational system (at least on paper) favoring the Nurture approach over the Nature approach… although, believe me, I understand that it is not representative of all practice, nor is it the direction in which we have been headed these past 10-20 years.

First, Slavich and Zimbardo proposed a wonderfully detailed model for what they called “Transformational Teaching” in 2012, in what I consider to be a landmark paper in Educational Psychology Review. Sticking with the name, the underlying premise of “transformation” is the belief that one can effect change, and so talent is cultivated and developed.

Second, George Kuh, in a 2008 publication of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, described what has become an extremely popular notion of “High Impact Teaching Practices.” Again, there is an underlying rhetorical presumption in our ability to promote and nurture change.

Years ago, in a 1996 paper that I co-authored with ethicist David Smith from Indiana University, we wrote about change and the non-neutrality of education:

Education is not a neutral activity. A sustained program of education inevitably affects the way a student looks at the world, and as a result it must have some effect on the student’s character. Even if we educate poorly or the effect is small, the aggregate outcome on students is still significant, as are our responsibilities.

I am no radical constructivist, and the interplay of Nature and Nurture in the identification, assessment, and development of talent is likely, inevitably, true.

China’s education system is built around Nature, with its testing and ranking and culling, and it misses that you get exactly the talent you have been selecting for, namely, incredibly good test-takers.

It is an error to confuse any locally high talent with global ability.

The idealized liberal arts tradition is compelling: to provide broad exposure to many areas as a source of entry points against which you can match yourself. And also to provide ways of thinking and knowing that can inspire analogies outside of whatever the dogma of the field happens to be. Both of these things allow for new and diverse thinking on problems… and the promise of nurturing genius, which just might be having the perspective and ability to see the new, the interesting, and the possible peeking out from the muck of what is.

“Blazing Sunset” (2004)

“Blazing Sunset” (2004)
by Jeffrey Catherine Jones (1944-2011)
18 x 24 in., oil on canvas
Coppola Collection

Jones was a great, great science fiction and fantasy artist, but it is her landscapes and scenery paintings that really catch me up. The strong and heavy impressionistic brushstrokes here give a compelling and animated dynamic to the composition that you just do not get with a more serene use of the medium.


“Tales to Astonish #89: Hulk p 6” (March 1967)

“Tales to Astonish #89: Hulk p 6” (March 1967)
by Gil Kane (1926-2000)
13.5 x 20 in., ink on paper
Coppola Collection

The Stranger takes Banner to a cave where he has set up an device to make him his slave. Forcing Banner to change into the Hulk proves to be more trouble as Hulk doesn’t want to be made the Stranger’s slave and attacks.

Fifty years ago!

I’ve got a few pages from comics published in these few months in 1967 that stem from a particular nostalgia. I turned 10 years old in February 1967, and this page was from the Hulk story in the second issue of Tales to Astonish that I ever bought. I have a Sub-Mariner page from #87, but so far (and probably never) a page from #88.

There is a page up from that issue at the Comic Connect auction for March 2017 (as it turns out). The auction results tells you why I do not have a page from this issue – I was willing to pay $2800 but (a) it was below the hidden reserve (a practice that I simply do not understand, unless you are not serious about selling and just want to see what people will offer), and (b) I was outbid, and (c) wherever it ended up was still below the reserve, so it did not sell.

Anatomy of a Commission (I)


My father’s family immigrated to the United States around 1900, from Sicily, where they have lived since at least the early 1600s. For most of that time, they were located in the east coast city of Aci Catena. Before he left Italy, my great-grandfather learned the craft of cigar-making, and the family took up this trade when they came to the United States.

I have always been a big fan of the wonderful graphic artist, Alphonse Mucha. He was alive and working at the turn of the century, often doing stellar posters for advertising.

Enter Esteban Maroto, a contemporary Spanish artist who has does a lot of art in the science fiction and fantasy genres. One of his pieces caught my attention: an advertising poster that I stumbled across. Within moments, this drawing inspired me to contact Esteban and propose a commission: what if Mucha had done some advertising posters for those extraordinary Sicilian cigar manufacturers, the Coppola Brothers of Aci Catena?

A few pictures of the storefront exist from the Coppola Brothers manufacturers in their US location. The oldest one is from 1903, when a big group of them immigrated.

Sometime later, as you can see here, the storefront is more built up, and the single known image of the complete cigar-store display figure, his right hand raised and presumably holding a cigar. It is a little tough to make out, but the center of the large sign over the door shows a triskilion, which is the symbol in the center of the Sicilian flag.   

By 1938, the storefront continued to evolve, and our buddy has lost his right arm. These next two images appear to be contemporary.

Sicilian cigars are noted for their size and shape, and for the unique style of their cigar bands, which are collectable.

The Idea

I wanted two posters, as though the ad campaign might take out face-to-face pages in a magazine, or they might be displayed side by side as actual posters. The key pieces of visual information, I proposed to Esteban, would be:

(1) duality; the two posters need to be joined, thematically, so male and female was an obvious choice, with both of them in over-the-top Carnivale outfits

(2) history; (a) the cigar-store figure would be a important guy to integrate somewhere; (b) the name of the establishment, and its fictitious founding year, 1851, the year of my great-grandfather’s birth; (c) a Coppola Brother cigar band, featuring the triskilion, calling out the Sicilian heritage, also a complete fiction

The Execution

Esteban mulled this over for a little while and came up with a great plan. He would extend the duality with male and female embodying the sun and the moon with correspondingly warm and cool color palates. He sent the following sketches. The one of the woman was almost perfect (get rid of the champagne glass), and the logo should be a more literal representation of a cigar band.

I did not care for the composition of the man’s poster. It was too vertical and divided, stiff, and did not complement the exceptional flow of the woman’s poster. The whole sun and moon theme is a great idea, and you can see the solar swirl. The integration of the figure into just one of the posters rather than both is a great idea, and you can see the start of what will be a terrific relationship between the figure and the man.

Other than suggesting the idea of making sure they worked as a pair and matching the compositional flow, Esteban did the rest. And boy, did he score. I thought the revision was great. The man has lost his drink and his cigar, and now the role of the sun is to light the cigar of the figure. That is merely genius!

The partially completed girl came in first. This is a great composition, with its strong diagonal fully integrated with the circular motion of the rest of the page.

When the man came in, though, I figured out a mistake I had made. I had been calling the cigar store figure a statue, and this was an error. According to Esteban, the grey was intentional, and I did not think that much contrast could possibly work.

Esteban wanted to give it a go, and promised to think about the light and highlights. The higher internal contrast does work better, but overall contrast in the composition was not, to me, a winner.

I wanted to give him a couple of options. One idea was to stick with the monotone statue, but fill him with the yellow-orange highlights he would have from this reflected color. I suppose we would never know, from these old images, whether the figure was painted or not, but the outrageous look of the Vatican Guard is classic Italian. To me, the ad campaign would have our friend in full color garb, and so that was my preference.

Esteban nailed it.

“Coppola Brothers (The Moon)” (2017)
by Esteban Maroto (1942-)
20 x 26 in., ink, marker, acrylic and watercolor on heavy paper
Coppola Collection

“Coppola Brothers (The Sun)” (2017)
by Esteban Maroto (1942-)
20 x 26 in., ink, marker, acrylic and watercolor on heavy paper
Coppola Collection