AESTHETICS And EDUCATION[*]
I am happy to have this opportunity to speak to you on Aesthetics and Education for a variety of reasons. In the first place, it is especially pleasant to speak at a university where so many of my best former students now teach. In the second place, moreover, participating in your seminar on this occasion brings back happy memories of my time at Washington University in St. Louis where as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences I met fairly regularly with the faculty of our interdisciplinary Graduate Institute of Education. A third reason is my conviction that philosophy and education are closely intertwined, with a great deal to learn from each other. Every practicing educator, explicitly or implicitly, has a philosophy, and, on the other hand, for the philosopher an awareness of the implications of one's view for education is essential for understanding the philosophy. At any rate, I agree with John Dewey that one of the best ways of clarifying a philosophy is to note its implications for education. Both the strengths and the weaknesses of a philosophical perspective become manifest when we see what differences it makes in educational practice. Finally, my topic for today, selected by Dr. Cho-yee To, affords occasion for directing attention to an important aspect of the relation between philosophy and education which has been all too frequently neglected.
But to turn to our topic of the day, at least a preliminary sketch of what we mean by aesthetics and education may well help get us into our topic. Aesthetics deals with the aesthetic field, with questions of the beautiful and the ugly, with what is fitting or appropriate in a situation, with what is worth experiencing on its own account, with what enriches and enhances the qualities of life. For the contextualist, as I prefer to call a proponent of my form of pragmatism, the aesthetic field is defined in terms of experience as vivified, intensified, clarified, and organized. There are various ways of thinking of education, but perhaps a brief statement on education as a field and as a process will help make clear what is important for understanding my approach to our topic. It seems to me that the field of education rnay better be thought of not as a discipline on the order of philosophy, psychology, history, zoology, or literature but rather as a profession which draws on many disciplines. With reference to education as a process we are dealing with something whose goal is human growth. And if we ask, what do we do when we educate a person? the answer is that we help that person to grow.
If we ask further what the marks of growth are, they are, according to the late Professor George Axtelle, “flexibility, openness to new insights, new possibilities, hospitality to novelty, to the imaginative and to the creative.” For growth one needs also “Integrity, balance, proportion, dynamic equilibrium, a unified wholeness of character. It involves the integral expression of all the resources and powers of the self."
If this Deweyan notion of education as growth be accepted, there are important consequences for education. It is valuable not simply as preparation but for its own sake. The test of social institutions is whether they make for continued education and growth. Education is not something exclusively for the young and dependent but rather is something for all of us. It must be a continuing affair . We never get too old to learn. To educate we start with a person where that person now is, with that individual's present stock of interests and knowledge, and work to expand and deepen both of them. Further, education is not primarily a spectator activity but rather a participatory one. We learn by doing. Education in this sense, moreover, as John Dewey saw clearly, is crucially important for democracy both as a form of government and as a way of life . Indeed, as he put it in his eightieth birthday celebration essay, “democracy is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.”
If we accept this general notion of education as human growth, two important avenues of approach to education open up: (1) a problem-solving approach, and (2) an approach emphasizing the realization of quality. Both approaches are essential. So neither can be closed off. But in the past many philosophers and educational theorists have stressed the first so heavily that we have lost sight of the second. For this reason I want to emphasize the second today; but perhaps a little further comment on the two approaches will help clarify my emphasis.
The first approach is one which leans heavily on the sciences, both in terms of their methods and their findings. To solve problems we make use of the method of critical inquiry, a method used with conspicuous success in the natural sciences. This method, as Dewey long maintained, starts with problems or difficulties, defines them in terms of observation and analysis, seeks hypotheses for solving the problems, reasons out the implications of these suggested solutions, and verifies them through observation and experimentation. The measure of growth on this approach is increased ability to recognize and solve problems.
We live in a changing world, a world which is a mixture of the precarious and the stable; and if we wish to stabilize favorable features of it or produce desirable changes in it, we must learn to develop appropriate means or instruments for accomplishing these ends. To do otherwise may lead to a severe form of future shock.
Accordingly, our educational programs must be ones for a changing world, for change has implications for every aspect of these programs-- for the how, the what, the where, the when, and the for whom. There are, moreover, no blanket answers for any of these questions, but experiment and inquiry may help us find such answers as are possible. Conceivably, if we lived in a static universe, we might perhaps justify a standpat program of education, one which sets forth in the traditional ways the agreed upon subjects of study, each more or less distinctly separated from the other fields of learning. But in view of the fairly obvious prevalence of change in our world, we must be prepared, if need be, to innovate, to try something new. Accordingly, whether we wish to understand our world or to do something about it, the central fact is one of change; and when we find what appears to be fixed and permanent, this suggests not perfection but rather a stuck needle on the record and the need for fresh light to help get us out of outmoded routines.
In our day change is accelerating at a fantastically rapid rate, and today's education must prepare for change. Foretelling what our civilization will be by the year 2000 is a highly risky affair, and preparing a person only for any one specific set of conditions may guarantee that the knowledge acquired will be outdated before the person has a chance to use it. Accordingly, as one eminent apostle of change, John Dewey, saw it, to prepare one for a changing world “means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”
Our second avenue of approach to education as human growth, the one emphasizing realization of quality, draws heavily on literature and the arts, on the humanities broadly conceived. It stresses not instruments and methods of solving problems but rather the perception and appreciation of qualities.
Perhaps this approach will be clearer if we distinguish two sorts of perception, one concerned with recognition for use and the other concerned with taking in the quality of experienced things. Without the former the habits that keep us alive and make our practical activities efficient would be inoperable. Without the latter what point is there to living and executing practical drives efficiently?
Suppose we contrast two kinds of perception of clouds in the sky on a hot summer day. For the farmer who is trying to haul in his hay before it rains the clouds are signs of more or less imminent rain and of the need to make haste. For someone stretched out on his back under the shade of a tree with no pressing drives to attend to, the clouds may be interesting in their own right--note the changing forms and shapes, the moving figures, appearing now like giant faces in the sky, now like great mountains, now like billowing mounds of snow or flour. The changing forms of the clouds, the smell of new-mown hay, fresh vegetation, and the warm earth, and the sounds of birds, cicadas, and rustling leaves may occupy our attention for an indefinite period of time, just taking in what is sensibly present.
Or to take another illustration, in making your way here to the lecture hall today how much of the quality of'your surroundings did you take in? I suggest that most of you were primarily concerned not with realizing quality but rather with doing an efficient job of getting here with minimum expenditure of time and effort. If you drove a car, the odds are that you noted traffic and possible obstructions while perhaps carrying on a conversation with others in the car. If you rode a bicycle or walked, it is still likely that the perception that guided you here was in the main an affair of recognizing or tagging for use appropriate objects. Contrast this with the experience of a small youngster you have sent on a simple errand to the store or a house a block or so away, only to find what seems to be an inordinate amount of time go by before the child returns with a report of the many interesting things found on the way--an ant hill, a new flower blooming, some bees, a butterfly, a bird’s nest with four eggs, a mud puddle, a broken toy, something the dog was barking at, and so on through such a list that it is a miracle that the errand was accomplished at all.
Or one more example, it has been said that if paintings hanging on the wall have been left in the same place for more than a couple of weeks we notice them only to dust the dirt off or to determine whether they're not a little off balance or tilted sideways. But we only recognize the painting rather than really see it in all its freshness and vividness. I suspect that many of us in looking back on our own childhood find ourselves sharing the experience of Wordsworth when he wrote:
There was a time when meadow, grove,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparel’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it has been of yore; --
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can
See no more!
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth -
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath passed away a glory
From the earth.
(“Intimations of Immortality”)
The development of efficient habit patterns has come at the price of losing sight of the glory about us; and here is where the poet and other artists come to the rescue. For illustration I shall speak primarily of poetry, but what I say about poets applies equally well to other artists. They make it their business to realize or take in the quality of events, and they have systematic ways of sharing this realization with us as works of art, producing vivid, clear, intense, and unified experiences. To appreciate the realm of quality as to enter the kingdom of heaven, it may be necessary to become as little children and devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the quality of events.
There is something of interest and value in every event, but we systematically neglect or pass over the quality of most events. As one poet put it, we casually measure the world. Development of efficient ways of doing things, smoothly functioning habits, sometimes produces in us a kind of functional blindness, deafness, or insensitivity to the quality of the world in which we live. The poet, however, cultivates sensitivity to sights, sounds, and feelings; and he or she has developed techniques for breaking up our habits, or putting them in a context which helps us see, feel, and experience the quality of our world, and presenting familiar objects in fresh fashion--the footworn stone or wayside flower, as Edwin Markham puts it.
Our habits cause us to focus upon our well worn ruts, and we run our paces in them without much sense of why this path rather than another. The poet opens up and broadens our world, giving us a sense of largeness of spirit, a feeling of aliveness or vitality. A Lucretius, a Dante, or a Goethe may give us some insight into what our world is like and why things are as they are in it.
The poet helps us overcome our inarticulateness and incoherence in expressing, putting into words, our feelings and our visions. By a relevant choice of imagery and the right words the poet gives appropriate expression to what we may have dimly felt but stated clumsily.
The poet also performs one other important function: namely, that of helping release us from a certain loneliness (or aloneness) and providing a basis for communion and community. Through the poet's help we discover that not we alone have thought such thoughts and felt such feelings. Others share our appreciations. In expressing our feelings, the poet or other artist socializes our appreciations and helps provide sympathetic understanding of our self and our fellows. The poet gives us, then, something at once lyrical, subjective, personal, and emotional and yet of more than personal significance, themes of general or pervasive import.
Everyday things take on special significance through the poet's work. As Wordsworth writes:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky,
and our hearts leap with him. Common daffodils acquire vividness and freshness when Wordsworth tells us:
I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake,
beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
And Gerard Manley Hopkins praises brindled cows, or brinded cows as he calls them, and stippled trout:
Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-modes all in stipple upon trouts
Fresh-firecoal, chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; .........
Wallace Stevens breaks our normal expectations concerning birds and speaks of
Birds that came like dirty water in waves
Flowing above the rocks, flowing over the sky,
As if the sky was a current that bore them along,
Sappho speaks of love and a solitary apple:
Love, like a mountain-wind upon an oak,
Falling upon me, shakes me leaf and bough.
(W. E. Leonard trans.)
Red and sweet as the apple that glows
by itself in the tree-top,
Out on a twig in the tree-top alone, and
forgot by the pickers.
No, not forgot, as I guess, but out of
their reach at the harvest.
What can be more monotonous than the succession of faces seen at a subway station from the train? But when Ezra Pound characterizes “the apparition of these faces in the crowd” as “Petals on a wet, black bough” a fresh turn has been given to them. Whoever thought of poems or songs as naked, or, for that matter, clothed, or as dancing? Well, Ezra Pound did, as witness his address to them:
Go, little naked and impudent songs,
Go with a light foot!
(Or with two light feet if it please you!)
Go and dance shamelessly?
All of us have tried at one time or another to speak of the incomparable quality of someone we love, but it may take a Wordsworth to say that the loved one is
Fair as a star, when only one
is shining in the sky.
But when it comes to toasts, what better one can one find than Ben Jonson’s toast to Celia?
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup
And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
Poets have reflected too on life and death and change. For example, Shelley holds that
We are as clouds
that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and
Streaking the darkness radiantly!-- yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever;
Man's yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.
Wallace Stevens also finds only mutability, a world in which the only emperor is emperor of ice-cream; and Villon bids us think of the lovely things of this world always in terms of the snows of yesteryear. Ronsard speaks of the passing of time and says that it is not time but we who go:
Time goes, you say?
Alas, Time stays, we go.
Le temp s’en va, le temps s’en va, madame!
Las! le temps non: mais “Nous nous en allons!”
Matthew Arnold has asked, “And what if we be mortal?”
Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have advanced true friends,
and beat down baffling foes;
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date ......?
Finally, Elinor Wylie asks us to focus on the human scene and warns:
Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope;
I am in nature none of these.
I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;...
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.
More might be said by way of elaborating this second too-much neglected approach to education as human growth, but perhaps enough has been said to suggest why it seems to me important that in educational theory and practice we keep open both the problem-solving approach and the realization of quality avenue.
If poets and other artists can help cure us of our functional sensory and spiritual blindness, help us see and feel the glories around us, aid us in overcoming our inarticulateness and incoherence in putting our feelings and visions into words, and assist us toward communion and community, is there any doubt but what those of us who work in education need poetry and the arts as well as the sciences?
If our answer is affirmative, as I think it should be, more needs to be done to insure that we and our students have ample opportunity to grow in appreciation and in realization of quality as well as in ability to recognize and solve problems.
In conclusion, then, in this presentation I have stressed the importance of aesthetics for education as human growth. My main thesis has been that human growth may be gauged both in terms of increased and continuing ability to solve problems and in terms of the sensitivity to and appreciation of the diverse qualities which characterize our world. If this thesis is cogent, educational theory and practice must actively utilize both the problem-solving approach so well exemplified in the sciences and the aesthetic realization of quality approach which stems from literature and the arts.
1. George E. Axtelle, “John Dewey’s Conception of the Religious,” Religious Humanism, 1 (1967): 66-67.
2. John Dewey, “Creative Democracy -- The Task before Us,” in The Philosophy of the Common Man: Essay in honor of John Dewey to Celebrate His Eightieth Birthday, edited by Sidney Ratner (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1940), p. 227.