Aesthetic Education

published in the Journal for Anthroposophy in Australia, Summer issue 2010.
(It was not properly edited, please excuse the ending).

Gosia Winter, WA

To achieve instead of moral practices, morality, instead of things known, knowledge, instead of happy experiences, happiness, is the business of physical and ethical education; to make beauty from beautiful objects is the task of aesthetic education.[1]

My cause is not for the children who suffer from physical need—though this cause rightly needs many willing hands for its work; my fire burns for children who are given so little chance to meet themselves, who suffer from spiritual need and the lack of fulfilment of their own authentic purpose.

How many souls are battered, hampered, chained to today’s and yesterday’s cultural hegemony? Who is free in himself to live his duty?

This last question may come as contradictory to many; but ask yourself—are you free to live your highest duty? Does your flame leap at the thought of serving the world with purpose? (If you are thus free, do you not wish this for all?) Or are you bound, by the past, by what is a physical duty to your particular situation? —a situation driven by an outer moral code, imposed upon you, as you had not the education to foster your own inner morality?

How do we create a situation where, as an adult, an individual has achieved “instead of moral practices, morality”?[2] It is hard to explain a situation that may be perceived only by some rather than many people, simply because of the failed education of the many—but I shall try.

All of our wisdom, all our possibility, lives within us. This must then meet through us in the world; and the act of this meeting is our duty, our will to fulfil this brought forth by our morality.

To be able to fulfil this duty, to be able to possess morality, we must have an understanding of our past and present contexts, and we must have skills to meet the world. Education, however, should not begin and end with context and skill. These “things known”[3] are not knowledge itself; these “things known” need to come into the service of something greater in oneself: a future context. Otherwise they do not become knowledge; nor do they give purpose to a life.

Neither is education the contriving of happy experiences, for happy experiences do not create happiness. The over-protection and bending to the will of a child may, for some, seem to ensure a happier life; but what does a child learn from this but the possible avoidance of displeasure, dis-ease, and natural and necessary crises? As adults, we are not prepared in ourselves for the future they shall face; but—should we not be prepared in ourselves to face our own futures, then we will also not see the measures needed to foster the process of happiness within a child.

A lost star cannot lead one that asks to be led.

Some may say that a child asks not to be led, but to lead him- or herself. Yet I do not know a child who is blind to his or her own limitations and need for improvement. Children wish only for deserving, active, honest leaders. A teacher who has stopped learning will receive little respect from a child: Both s/he who ‘knows all there is to know’ and s/he who has not the wish to learn any more will be scorned. Courage is visible to the child; and imperfection that is held honestly, and with purpose, is loved.

And, in all honesty, is it not the same for adults whose mentors, lecturers, teachers have also lost the will to strive?

What is it then to teach? Is it simply to impart the knowledge you already know—to make this dead image of your own striving the matter with which you fill younger minds?

What is your striving now? What burns in you now? These should be the questions to begin each teaching and learning moment with.

Ask yourself what constitutes a good conversation. Within good conversation and in meaningful social interaction, there are many necessities; to listen to the other, to hear others’ points of view as if they were your own, to hold a space for them to become who they are striving to become. The listening in a good conversation, I am convinced, is more aware and active than the talking. Once we have grasped a concept on our own, we wish to share it with talk—that concept is no longer alive, but instead must be brought down to mere words, to language, so that the other may understand objectively. A good conversation takes place in the space of listening, of perception. The deeper and more receptive the perception of the listener, the deeper and more fruitful the conversation becomes.

And what does a good conversation lead to? Action! If you are heard, listened to in a certain way, you are called to act—not by the listener, but by what s/he has allowed you to listen to in yourself.

Is not education then, a long instance of listening? Is it not the fostering of skill, happiness (or resilience) and listening, in such a way that these things can be put to right use through the ‘speaker’? Furthermore, is listening not in service of each individual, so that one might find one’s authentic purpose, finding meaning by gaining the means to fully express one’s gifts and talents?

Earlier, I spoke of morality as that which drives our will to fulfil our duty. It is linked to our ability to respond. Yet the ability to respond, I believe, is developed by our aesthetic judgement:

The aesthetic—as opposite of numbness, of the anaesthetic—is closely linked to our ability to respond. In this space—beyond the linear, the liberal, the discursive—where the creative imagination weaves and moves, we are moved inwardly to become internally active.[4]

However, it seems that, more than ever, the hierarchy of subjects, a construct wrought by the conditions of the industrial revolution and the thinking of the Enlightenment, causes art to be grossly misunderstood and mistaught. This oversight inhibits the ability of all individuals to foster aesthetic feeling within themselves:

The arts especially address the idea of aesthetic experience; and aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you’re present in the current moment, when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing, when you’re fully alive.

An anaesthetic is when you shut your senses off and deaden yourself to what’s happening; and a lot of [ADHD] drugs are that. We are getting our children through education by anaesthetising them. And I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We shouldn’t be putting them to sleep; we should be waking them up to what they have inside themselves.[5]

The result of an education that wakens children to what they have within themselves is one that is differentiated in so much, as it takes each child as an individual with individual needs. I would disagree, however, with the notion that each child needs its own curriculum, arguing rather that the results of each person’s learning are different. The important thing to remember here is that classrooms and schools are essentially social, cultural, civic spaces. We largely learn our social behaviour in groups from our involvement therein. How can we fully justify our actions as adults towards the striving for our task without having an acute awareness of its social implications? How do we learn this social awareness? What is healthy social awareness?

From one end a child brings with him or her talents, abilities and interests, which must meet the world for that individual to have a meaningful human experience. The space between those capabilities and the world is social, and so the child is socialised so that s/he may actualise these capabilities in a healthy way. Socialisation requires the development of skills, resilience, and communication, and the training of the experience for aesthetic moments—where the possibility of the future lives in the present moment and the will is fully engaged.

It can hardly be expected that a child is able to comprehend objectively, to fully cultivate and manifest a strong creative impulse arising from his or her own individual purpose. This is not to say that children do not perceive such things or that there has never been a case of such—simply that childhood is our preparation for being able to link the raw creative forces, which naturally are alive in each of us, with the necessity of the world. We should no more expect children to be able to produce artworks before they have had aesthetic experience, than we should expect them to write a letter before they have learnt their alphabet; yet many children are educated in such a way that later, as adults, they believe themselves to be uncreative, unartistic. As adults they are unable to wield their imagination positively, nor to experience the usefulness and will of aesthetic experience.

As teachers we help till the soil, we find that the seed is there to be planted—yet we do not sow this seed, especially not before time, just as we do not call upon the purpose of an individual in her or his childhood. These  nascent individuals must alone be the planters, carers and harvesters of their own seeds. We teach them the skill with which to work their land, only because we have learned to work our own. And yet education is structured today to serve an end—we manufacture people who can contribute in the same way as is currently, and has been, done:

I think we have to change metaphors. We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people, we have to move to a model that is based more on agriculture. We have to recognise that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. You cannot predict the outcome of human development, all you can do is, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.[6]

To create such a shift in education is to re-imagine the role of the teacher and of pedagogy itself. We need to respond to a need in ourselves and a need in others to connect with our authentic purpose, whatever that may be: “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art,” said Joseph Beuys in 1969, in conversation with Willoughby Sharp.[7]

A three year old is not half a six year old.[8]

Children reject modernist education, which has little connection to their own sense of developing self-purpose. They are developing vocational capacities for the economic market rather than themselves. This is not done deliberately, rather simply because it has been done so in the past and both institutions and educators find it hard to shift their paradigm of pedagogy.[9]

However undervalued, our imagination is a force that can be cultivated to allow us to experience the world aesthetically.

Is it not precisely this internal action that we are hoping to engender in young hearts and minds—the ability to respond, with awareness? Yet the way in which we teach our children to work towards such inner autonomy and will is through increased standardised testing, and teaching them what and how to think, rather than through showing them what and how they think and guiding them to refine these impulses. Furthermore, when children are not able to control their reactions to their surroundings (remember that we live in the most intensely stimulating time in history), we medicate them so that they may be calmer and more able to take in what we wish to give them. But “human organisations are not like mechanisms. … Human organisations are much more like organisms; that’s to say, they depend upon feelings and relationships and motivation and value, self-value, and a sense of identity and of community. You know, the way you work in an organisation is deeply affected by your feeling for it.”[10]


[1] Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 1795. Trans. Reginald Snell. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. Repr. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004. p 83

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sacks, Shelley. Exchange Values: Images of Invisible Lives. Exhibition catalogue. Wangen (Allgäu): FIU-Verlag, 2007. p 33

[5] Robinson, (Sir) Ken. Changing Paradigms. Acceptance speech on receiving the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) Benjamin Franklin Medal, 2008. On-line. http://wn.com/Sir_Ken_Robinson__Changing_Paradigms

[6] Ibid. Bring On the Learning Revolution. On-line.

http://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_bring_on_the_revolution.html [my emphasis]

[7] Artforum 4.  p 44

[8] Robinson, (Sir) Ken. Bring On the Learning Revolution. Op. cit.

[9] Robinson, (Sir) Ken. Changing Paradigms. Op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

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