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Miseducation of the Arkansans  

Miseducation of the Arkansans  

Dr. Najja K. Baptist


Installation view. “What Did You Learn in School Today” at CALS Roberts Library in Little Rock Arkansas. Courtesy of the artist.

Dr. Najja K. Baptist has co-written this article with Julie Jann Gallagher.

Beneath Little Rock’s CALS Roberts Library lies a catacomb where social consciousness intersects with visual politics in an illuminating exhibit by Jay Youngdahl called “What Did You Learn in School Today?” This enigmatic showcase, a mesmerizing symphony of broken Confederate narratives and fractured conservative truths, beckons the intrepid explorer to venture beyond the boundaries of conventional artistry into uncharted territories of participatory action art.

In the exhibition, open through June 29th, in Little Rock—Arkansas’s capital and home of Central High School, a historic site of desegregation—a sense of disorientation and dissonance pervades the atmosphere, inviting viewers to question their preconceptions and embrace the discomfort of uncertainty. Through their innovative approach to art and activism, the exhibit’s creator disrupted the traditional boundaries of the art world, blurring the lines between artist and audience, object and subject, and observer and observed.

Jay Youngdahl
Jay Youngdahl. “Reflecting the Effects of the Confederate Narrative I-X,” 2021-23. Photographs. Courtesy of the artist.

Art as visual politics permeates every corner of the exhibition space, with each piece serving as a potent visual citation of historical injustices, cultural symbols, and societal disparities. From haunting images of the civil rights activist and spokeswoman for the first nine black students enrolled at Central Highschool, Daisy Bates’s, gravestone to evocative representations of federal outreach, the end of slavery, and the enduring legacy of disparity, “What Did You Learn in School Today?” weaves a complex visual and conceptual tapestry that demands introspection and critical engagement.

The exhibit opens with a pressed penny machine, a curious relic of bygone innocence now marred by the weight of unresolved tensions and shattered dreams. This humble contraption, once a beacon of childhood whimsy and nostalgia, now stands as a testament to the fractures that run deep within the fabric of our society—a poignant reminder of the work that remains to be done in the pursuit of justice and equity. There is no direction or natural flow to this exhibit. Youngdahl lets you decide where your learning begins.

Jay Youngdahl. “The Spines I,” 2024. Vinyl. Courtesy of the artist.
Jay Youngdahl. “Memorial Marchers and Protestors, Guardians of Freedom (1963 and 2020).” MLK’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ etched on mirrors on top of the facsimile of a box holding a confederate monument removed in 2020. Top: 1x1x1, middle 2x2x2, bottom, 3x3x3. Courtesy of the artist.

What resonates the most are the images of book spines functioning as the pillars of the exhibit. A mirrored cube with words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” sits between the textbooks in the wall and the middle of the room. As you read the eloquent words of one of history’s most prolific leaders, you also see yourself in the mirrored glass. One explanation for the artist’s choice to use glass could be the desire to balance the darkness of the Confederacy with the light of what helped Jay unlearn his inadequate Arkansian secondary education.

The exhibit pushes the boundaries of artistic expression and challenges viewers to confront the complexities of our shared reality with courage and curiosity. Through its provocative blend of visual politics, participatory action art, and enigmatic symbolism, the exhibit invites us to embark on self-discovery and social awakening, urging us to look beyond the surface of things to uncover hidden truths.

Jay Youngdahl
Jay Youngdahl. “The Textbooks I-IIII,” 2024. Arkansan school book 1970s enlarged print reproduction installed on foam core. Courtesy of the artist.

What did we learn on the day of our visit? We learned that the Daughters of the Confederacy wrote children’s textbooks in the South during and after the Civil War. These textbooks were not just educational materials but also Confederate propaganda, which fueled the South’s “Lost Cause” narrative. The original texts presented a distorted reality, which became even more romanticized after the Confederates lost the Civil War.

Conservatism is as American as apple pie, and whitewashing and indoctrination are slices of the Natural State’s pie. These qualities are ever present in America and reside in all aspects of our nation’s foundation. Arkansas and many other red states inundate their children with this warped sense of pride, ignorance, and arrogance that only conquerors and Noble Savages can muster. This exhibit highlights examples of White supremacist ideology and historical rhetoric but does attempt to convey the depth and weight of the contemporary narrative.

“What Did You Learn in School Today?” is not a historical conversation. It is today’s conversation. The argument for states’ rights is pulled directly from the “Lost Cause” narrative primarily taught in schools in Arkansas, other Southern states, and the Midwest. Different adaptations of the textbooks displayed in the exhibit are still used in many schools in the South. The artist chose pages from books that represent some of these fallacies. It is a thoughtful exhibit. In his artist’s statement, Youngdahl says, “I believe a consideration of the ‘Lost Cause’ view of history should remain with us.” We respond to that by answering, “It has never left.” Ultimately, “What Did You Learn in School Today?” is not merely an exhibition — it is a manifesto, a call to arms, a rallying cry for a new era of artistic and social consciousness. In its shattered fragments and cryptic symbols, we find the keys to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world.

Jay Youngdahl’s What Did You Learn in School Today is open through June 29th, 2024 at CALS Roberts Library, Library Square, 401 President Clinton Ave, Little Rock, AR 72201.

Julie Jann Gallagher has a master’s degree in political science and a master’s certificate in African and African American Studies from the University of Arkansas. Gallagher will continue to teach The African American Experience in the fall of 2024 as she begins her PhD program at the University of Arkansas. She is the recipient of a supplemental National Science Foundation grant. Gallagher is the site manager for the University Advanced Research Team (UART) and the general manager of the University of Arkansas Advanced Research Team (UA-UART). Her thesis and concentrated area of study is on curriculum and how it affects political attitudes.

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