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Aesthetics and Education

Education and aesthetics are bound together in mysterious ways, it seems. But how exactly? What do people mean when they talk about an ‘aesthetic education’?

Here’s a good definition:

‘An aesthetic education is one that recognises the interconnectedness of body, mind, emotions, and spirit, enabling students to express perceptions, feelings and ideas through reflective shaping of media including paint, clay, music, spoken or written words, mathematics and bodies in movement.’

Aesthetics and education can both help a person to grow, and growth, after all, is what education is all about. Being flexible, being open to newness, new possibilities, being willing to imagine and to create, all these are part of living a life where education takes place all the time and they are part of an aesthetic philosophy too.

Children learn best by doing. A really good education, too, is not just about getting a set of certificates for the purposes of getting a paying job, but about enabling and empowering young people to become more whole as people. The test of any social institution, including a school, should be whether it makes for continued education and growth, and that education and growth occurs largely through doing.

Does aesthetics have anything to do with doing? Aesthetics deals with questions of the beautiful and the ugly, with what is fitting or appropriate in a situation, with what is worth experiencing. It’s not a theoretical subject, really, but rather a participatory one. We learn these fundamentally important skills things by doing. They are the skills which make us human, which make us whole.

Through aesthetics, a person can be encouraged to gain command of himself or herself; an aesthetic education means so to train someone that he or she will have full and ready use of all his or her capacities, so that a student’s eye and ear and hand may become tools ready to command. Judgement, in an aesthetic education, becomes capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the young person is thus trained to act economically and efficiently.

The perfect example of this is students doing Drama, rehearsing and performing, learning not only how to ‘put on a play’, but how to make judgements, how to use their eyes, ears and hands in harmony with others, how to grasp the conditions under which they have to work, how to work economically and efficiently. It’s a brilliant culmination of what education is all about.

Though Drama draws heavily on literature and the arts, and on the humanities broadly, it is also very much about the making of instruments for accomplishing artistic ends. Students have to come up with their own methods of solving problems but in the context of the perception and appreciation of qualities. It’s not just a case of ‘We need to build this set’ but ‘We need to build this set so as to achieve this particular aesthetic effect in this time-frame.’

A particular production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which I helped to direct contained a perfect example of this: the Stone Table on which Aslan the Lion is sacrificed at the key moment in the story. Something had to be built which was strong enough to support an actor lying down, but designed in such a way that it could break apart soundlessly - while permitting the actor to roll off into the darkness for a dramatic re-appearance later. All of this had to be done in such a way that the audience wouldn’t notice anything distracting, because the entire aesthetic impact of the tale rested on this exact action.

In the end, students worked with teachers to devise a hinged table which other actors could ‘release’, and other elements of stage design -a brilliant lightning flash to temporarily blind the audience and a thunderclap to startle everyone- came together to produce a truly memorable experience: an aesthetic moment of considerable power.

As the light flashed and the thunder rolled, the young actor unhinged the platform on which he had been ‘killed’ and rolled off into the darkness, unseen, leaving a ‘broken’ Stone Table behind him. Moments later, at the appropriate point in the tale, he could then magically re-appear, creating a wonderfully aesthetic story moment for the audience.

There’s plenty more to be said about aesthetics in education -and no doubt I’ll say it at some point. But I think that it’s worth reflecting on the fact that every single human society on Earth places a huge importance on the role of aesthetics -it is what we do as people when our work of surviving is done- and an education which weaves aesthetics into the way students work has already begun to advance our human culture.

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