Human knowledge is continually expanding and improving. Despite its growth and refinement, knowledge continues to be fragmentary and imperfect; areas of ambiguity and knowledge unattained remain. These are areas for which current scientific methods have not yielded satisfactory answers. The humanities have been a source for exploring such realms of knowing, with their continual reinterpretation and investigation of the self and its lived experiences. Some aspects of human experience are not universal; they are particular and situational. These are the realms of the arts and imagination, and what has been termed aesthetics in education.
Aesthetics refers not only to art, but also to particular types of interactions with learning and the environment. Aesthetics is a part of education in three veins relevant to social foundations of education: education that itself is aesthetic, aesthetic education, and aesthetics as a necessary component of a moral and thoughtful life.
Education As Aesthetic Experience
Education that is aesthetic utilizes multiple interpretations, unexpectedness, spontaneity, and ambiguity. Such education embraces students’ and teachers’ own interactions with the object of study as students and teachers move beyond assumptions that the body must be separate from the mind’s engagement in learning. This approach makes use of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s exploration of subjective and bodily experience as establishing one’s knowledge of the world. MerleauPonty’s articulation of the phenomenological harkens to Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten’s project of “the cultivation of the body” with its ability to perceive the world through its senses, which is discussed below.
John Dewey explicitly addressed aesthetics in his persistent concern for experiences within education. Much of his work explored experiences, mapping their terrain and describing what makes them complete. For Dewey, an experience is a complete, bounded, unified event that is achieved through the aesthetic. It is not a repeatable event, as each experience depends upon its context, history, composite factors, and a particular satisfaction (which is by definition aesthetic) that must exist for an experience to be complete.
This conception of the aesthetics of experiences explains Dewey’s concern that all educational experiences be aesthetic, that is, consciously constructed and perceived by the intellectual, emotional, and physical self. Educational experiences are aesthetic when students engage directly in the making, whether it is the production of an artwork, a historical investigation, or scientific exploration, rather then merely learning about what others have done. While students are involved in their learning, they are also actively aware of what they are doing, and reflect upon it.
An aesthetic experience occurs when the doing of something, and the perception of what is being created, are wholly in harmony. Students’ engagement in real literature, active learning about the environment through a school garden, and solving real community problems exemplify potential aesthetic learning experiences. In contrast, the nonaesthetic experience is routine, mechanized, and conventional. Worksheets, standardized exams, and basal readers exemplify such routinization. According to Dewey, an aesthetic experience is intellectual, emotional, and physical; it connects to students’ past and future activities in meaningful ways. These connections occur when the learner is aware of the real context of the experience. Aesthetic experiences occur in artistic creation, but can also exist in daily life when events are undertaken with consciousness and perception. Such everyday aesthetic experiences characterize a fulfilling life and should be the hallmark of educational practice.
Maxine Greene has expanded on Dewey’s writings about aesthetic transactions with ordinary events in her repeated calls for “wide-awakeness” and attention to the darknesses and lights of our social lives. Like Dewey, Greene has argued for education and living that counteract tendencies toward the routine and unconscious. There is much in people’s daily lives to which they pay little attention; schoolrooms are filled with actions taken without thoughtful intention or deliberateness. Schoolrooms instead could be locations of immediacy in which students and teachers engage in rich, meaningful activities and pay attention to their own unique responses to those activities. In so doing, the teaching and learning would be aesthetic, as aesthetic education embraces the particular meaning making those students and teachers create, meaning making which does not reflect an authoritarian assumption of knowledge. Aesthetic education, therefore, leads to the development of human freedom in democratic ideas and practice.
Aesthetic experiences often result from careful consideration of a work of art. Engaging with a work of art in the presence of others enables the viewer to be aware of how different people interact with an artwork. There is a strong correlation here between noticing how different learners make sense of an educational problem or topic and recognizing there are multiple paths to solving educational problems. Furthermore, because the arts are expressions of the range of human imagination, engagement with the arts enables a person to explore dimensions of human experience that may otherwise be inaccessible. The arts are expressions of the imagination and identify possibilities that may not exist in reality. What a person cannot directly experience may be explored through literature, music, dance, drama, and the visual arts.
Including aesthetics in education enables teaching and learning to be the development of active, independent thinking and questioning. Instead of taking another’s statement as fixed fact, students of aesthetic education attend to their own experiences in addition to the diverse experiences of others. Hearing such diversity of opinion becomes part of the individual experience. Students’ experiences may be informed by what others say, but the students remain free to challenge others’ assumptions and stereotypes because their own unique experience remains valid. When expanded to society, these practices have profound implications—society’s members freely think for themselves, rather than blindly follow authority.
It has been observed that much of education is notable for its lack of aesthetics when it involves a technocratic approach to teaching that does not accommodate the idiosyncrasies and individualities of teachers and students. Much of current society dulls the everyday aesthetic, and students and teachers must engage in aesthetic education to relearn how to fully engage in lived experience. Aesthetic education is about teaching and learning a way of living, of approaching the world. It is about fostering the imagination to the construction of all the possibilities therein. It involves teaching about how to experience art, and how to engage in any experience. The engagement with a work of art does not evolve naturally from the artwork itself, but from the ongoing interrelationship (what Dewey termed a “transaction”) between the observer and the work of art.
Aesthetic education develops the ability to engage in aesthetic experiences. In contrast to the expansive stance described above, some art educators consider aesthetic education to involve learning a correct and agreed upon interpretation of a given work of art. This stance presumes that the uneducated eye will be unable to fully engage in a work of art because of its distance from common experience.
Aesthetic Education As A Discipline
Another approach to aesthetic education has been to consider it as its own field of study. Discipline-based art education (DBAE) exemplifies this approach, as it argues for teaching art through four topics: aesthetics, art history, art criticism, and the production of art. Promoted by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in Los Angeles, DBAE presents aesthetic education as an intellectual subject of study necessary to fully understand the arts.
When aesthetics is a part of art education, it expands art students’ participation beyond the production, critique, and history of art. As a philosophy of art, aesthetics provides a means for students to ask critical, reflective questions about their own engagements with the work of art. While students may do so naturally on their own, they are more likely to pursue that avenue with a teacher’s guidance and thereby come to a greater understanding of the artwork’s value and significance for themselves and others. The influence of DBAE in the development of art education, particularly through the Journal of Aesthetic Education founded in 1966, has been considerable.
Aesthetics As A Moral Compass
Education that is aesthetic, as well as DBAE, draws from historical ideals of education, notably articulated by Plato, the ancient Greeks, and some Continental philosophers. Study of fine arts such as painting, poetry, and music completes the education of a cultured person because it enables individuals to conduct their lives with grace and harmony. The study of art entails learning to discern beauty as it is demonstrated in art, and thereby evaluate creative expressions for their embodiment of beauty. The ancient Greek ideal of kalokagathia brought together the beautiful (kalos) and the good (agathos) in a moral statement that beauty is inherently good, and that the nature of good is beauty. If one is educated to appreciate and create beauty, then the individual and by extension society will be morally just. According to this approach, aesthetic education involves learning to discern what makes an object beautiful and how that beauty could be applied to one’s own life through contemplation of its higher values. Not only to ask, “What is art?” but also to identify the best qualities of art that exemplify beauty.
Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten reframed the term aesthetics to refer to a cultivated appreciation of art and the “science of sensory cognition.” He moved the study of art from one focused solely on the object to an inclusion of the perceiver’s interaction with the art object. Aesthetic instruction is necessary, argued Baumgarten, to develop one’s sensory perceptions in order to recognize beauty. Immanuel Kant advanced philosophical thinking about aesthetics by articulating the importance of the viewer’s perception, rather than qualities inherent in the work of art. Kant notably cleaved aesthetic judgment from moral judgment, identifying the former to be subjective and the latter universal.
The Greek conflation of the beautiful with the good gained further examination in a series of letters to a Danish prince by Friedrich Schiller. In these letters, compiled under the title On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller built on Immanuel Kant’s argument concerning the relationship between perception and art. The beauty and goodness of art would be, for Schiller, people’s liberation from the ignoble state humanity had suffered under since civilization’s pinnacle, ancient Greece. If people were surrounded by great art, or “symbols of perfection,” eventually the reality of their lives would come to resemble such noble beauty. Through an appreciation of art, Schiller argued, rationality and freedom would emerge. Without art, humanity would not be fully possible.
For the casual observer, “aesthetics” conflates with “beauty” and evokes ideals of harmony and grace in the arts. Classical ideals presume that students must be taught how to understand the magnificence of a masterwork beyond a rudimentary awareness of beauty. This approach to aesthetics in Western schools often has privileged Western classical art. As such, the study of aesthetics often has been positioned as a largely elitist activity which remains separate from daily life.
Despite this, aesthetics remains relevant to all arenas of education. Scholars such as John Dewey, Maxine Greene, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Elliot Eisner, and Wolfgang Iser have persistently advocated a study and use of aesthetics that is available to all people and develops independent, critical thinkers. Aesthetics in education comprises the best of education both for the arts and for a society that values individuals capable of making their own judgments even while aware of the diversity of others’ voices.
- Baumgarten, A. G. (1961). Aesthetica. Hildesheim: G. Olms. Dewey, J. (1980).
- Art as experience. New York: Perigee. Eisner, E. W. (2002). The arts and creation of mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Iser, W. (2001). The range of interpretation. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Kant, I. (1991). Critique of pure reason. London: J. M. Dent. Kant, I. (2000). Critique of judgment. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of perception. New York: Routledge.
- Schiller, F. von (1967). On the aesthetic education of man (E. M. Wilkinson & L. A. Willoughby, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. (Original work published 1795)
- Smith, R. A., & Simpson, A. (Eds.). (1991). Aesthetics and arts education. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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