37. Aesthetics and Education, Part 2

In post #23 we saw how aesthetics can play a role in global education (see here). Let’s continue by looking at some other ways aesthetics can help us learn.

In his book The Aesthetic Understanding, Roger Scruton points out that science is knowledge that something is the case—facts.  Technological knowledge is about how something works.  And aesthetic understanding is knowledge what—meaning knowledge about what we are to feel when confronted with life’s challenges. He writes:

“Knowing what to do, Aristotle suggested, is a matter of right judgment (orthos logos); but it also involves feeling rightly: the virtuous person ‘knows what to feel’ spontaneously feeling what the situation requires: the right emotion, towards the right object, on the right occasion, and in the right degree.  Moral education has just such knowledge as its goal. And it is a curious fact, which may be held forth as a partial confirmation of Aristotle’s view concerning the place of emotion in virtue, that we use the idiom ‘knowing what’ not of actions only, but of feelings too.  The world is full of people who ‘do not know what to feel’—whether in response to their personal situation, or in response to the events and non-events by which they are surrounded.  To understand what it is to ‘feel in ignorance’, you need only observe the habits engendered by pornography and the uncritical display of violence and destruction on the movie screen.”[1]

In many books we read what certain characters do and their actions strike us as too stubborn, too cruel, too cowardly, etc. But we also feel that something just isn’t right. Such feelings can help us understand that we should not act like that when confronted with a similar situation.  We come to realize that what we should feel and what we should do would be very different.  This aesthetic understanding is provided in many works and should not be overlooked as a powerful way to learn.

Many great minds have realized this. In his Republic, Plato had his character Socrates argue that children must be raised with proper aesthetic experiences if they are to be correctly disposed to be just souls in a just state. Such dispositions need to be in place before the capacities of reflection are activated. Friedrich Schiller claimed, in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man, that it is beauty alone that confers on man a truly social character and allows him to participate in universal bonds of solidarity:  After all, “all other forms of communication divide society because they relate exclusively either to private sensibility or to the private skillfulness of its individual members, that is, to what distinguishes one man and another; only the communication of the Beautiful unites society, because it relates to what is common to them”.[2] Herbert Read argued in a similar fashion in his Education Through Art:

“[T]he aim of imaginative education…is to give the individual a concrete sensuous awareness of the harmony and rhythm which enters the constitution of all living bodies and plants, which is the formal basis of all works of art, to the end that the child, in its life and activities, shall partake of the same organic grace and beauty.   By means of such an education we instill into the child that “instinct for relationship” which, even before the advent of reason, enables it to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the evil, the right pattern of behavior from the wrong pattern, the noble person from the ignoble.”[3]

And Adam Smith, in his classic work Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote:

“Human society, when we contemplate it in a certain abstract and philosophical light, appears like a great, an immense machine, whose regular and harmonious movements produce a thousand agreeable effects.  As in any other beautiful and noble machine that was the production of human art, whatever tended to render its movements more smooth and easy, would derive a beauty from this effect, and, on the contrary, whatever tended to obstruct them would displease on that account: so virtue, which is, as it were, the fine polish to the wheels of society, necessarily pleases; while vice, like the vile rust, which makes them jar and grate upon one another, is as necessarily offensive.”[4]

Is it possible to cultivate in ourselves and others an aesthetic sense for social, political, psychological, intellectual, and environmental harmony?  Can we learn to not just intellectually acknowledge the aspects of life that don’t fit but also feel them as “necessarily offensive” like our car making grating sounds to which we feel compelled to respond with immediate action?  Perhaps with such a sense, cultivated throughout life, we will know all the more what to feel and when something in our world just isn’t right. Perhaps Read’s “instinct for relationship” is indeed the real ground for the subsequent reflection we employ in moral and political action. But can it developed?

I think so. Of course, such an aesthetic awareness must also be allied with critical reason. After all, it appears one can have an aesthetic experience of beauty that has immoral content (for example, the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will which is visually beautiful yet ideologically ugly). But this instinct for relationship, harmony, and so on need not be limited to sensuous beautiful; it can extend to, as we have seen, social arrangements and moral character. That said, we still need to think hard about what aesthetic experiences are cultivated in the young and what kinds of aesthetic experiences we allow ourselves to have. We would also need certain political commitments to foster the institutional context for such experiences and their subsequent development. Naturally, any efforts along these lines are bound to be complicated and many troubling issues are bound to arise (e.g., censorship, competing views of the good and the true, multiple interpretations of art, etc.). But I think this “instinct for relationship” is worth pursuing in whatever ways we can.


[1] The Aesthetic Understanding: Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), p. 248.

[2] On the Aesthetic Education of Man (New York: Dover, 2004), p. 138.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Quoted in Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990), p. 37.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *