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Aesthetic education: Recent thoughts on old problems

Oliver Belas, Lecturer in Education at University of Bedfordshire

Aesthetic education is usually concerned with the role of arts appreciation in students’ personal development. Its advocates often pitch it in opposition to instrumentalism, but in doing so, they face a difficulty: as soon as one attempts to justify something, it’s easy to slip into talk of what it must be good for. The challenge, then, and the question with which this article is chiefly concerned, is: How best to resist educational instrumentalism and convince others of aesthetic education’s importance in ways that are not themselves instrumentalist?

For Maxine Greene (2001), aesthetic education involves induction into the languages of the arts and arts criticism, so that we might see the world differently. Aesthetic education aims to enable us to voice aesthetic experience. Greene believes that, far from being of secondary importance to more ‘functional’ skills, aesthetic education is central to education generally: it’s an ongoing process; it fosters imaginative interpretations of the world; and it’s through aesthetic education that we truly learn how to learn.

Aesthetic education and the arts

Greene (2001) is a sound account of the general structure of particular (aesthetic) experiences (for example, the ways in which we might respond to a poem). But if aesthetic education is a mode of learning-to-learn central to any educational project – regardless of age or phase – then the relationship between aesthetics and the arts ends up looking like one merely of convention.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2004) believes that aesthetic experience consists in the oscillation between presence (worldly here-and-now encounters – as spectators at sports events, say, or watchers of films – the precise experiential feeling of which is just beyond language’s grasp) and meaning (those encounters put into language – for example, written/spoken responses to music). He wants not to dispense with meaning, but a ‘relation’ to experience ‘that could oscillate between presence effects and meaning effects’ (Gumbrecht, 2004, p. xv). Gumbrecht (2006) also recognises that we are as (perhaps more) likely to experience presence when caught up ‘in the moment’ of sports events as we are standing before ‘great’ works of art (the Mona Lisa, say) in museums. The experience-type to which Greene (2001) hopes to give voice might, then, emerge in our encounters with almost any worldly objects (sports games, food, comic, and so on): artworks are simply the most obvious (and, in the context of aesthetic education, the most privileged).

‘We are as (perhaps more) likely to experience presence when caught up “in the moment” of sports events as we are standing before “great” works of art (the Mona Lisa, say) in museums.’

Separating aesthetic experience from the arts is crucial if Greene wants us to take seriously aesthetic education as an end in itself: through-the-arts is only one possible mode of living an aesthetically attuned life. To think otherwise is to make a mere instrument of art or aesthetics or both. If truly an end in itself, aesthetic experiences must be understood as those we might be able to express (partially), but which have no prior nor more fundamental reason: I cannot explain my attachment to this sport or that artwork beyond the raw fact of the attachment itself. It is, pace Gumbrecht, the character of such attachments, not their reference to particular, privileged objects, that is the mark of the aesthetic.

The advocate, then, will find it hard to satisfy the sceptic asking, ‘why bother with aesthetic education?’ To justify its importance instrumentally in terms of skills development or employability is to concede that aesthetic education, in and of itself, is actually not very important. To reply that aesthetic education is important simply because it is (because we tend to care about who we are, about our place in our worlds) is the only responsible reply; but it’s likely to be found underwhelming by many.

Aesthetic education and academic convention

Gumbrecht (2006, p. 21) claims that academia has ‘lost not just a tone of writing but an affective disposition’. He calls this disposition praise, and it is the attitude he believes we need to adopt to express our aesthetic encounters (presence). If aesthetic education aims at helping us live between meaning and presence, then we may need to ask whether academia’s received stylistic conventions are adequate (for either research or assessment). When the ‘object’ of study is personal experience, ‘we cannot help being our own intellectual environment, and we even have to be the frames of reference for the works we are interested in’ (Gumbrecht 2004, p. xvii): in such a context, academic convention (or our received sense of it) may be a methodological restriction. Research into aesthetic experience and education, then, cannot – or, at least, should not try to – divorce questions of style or poetics from those of method. (And if there is any truth to any of that, then one might ask whether a blog like this does anything more than point, from a distance, at the thing it wants to understand.)


Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gumbrecht, H. U. (2004). Production of presence: What meaning can’t convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gumbrecht, H. U. (2006). In praise of athletic beauty. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Dr Oliver Belas is lecturer in education at the University of Bedfordshire. His research interests lie in philosophy of education (in particular, questions of knowledge (especially embodied knowledge), identity, and poetics/methodologies) and English (its educational formation, role, status).