Sunday, September 28, 2008

Aesthetic inequality?

At the moment I'm re-reading Democracy and Education, something probably worth doing every few years. I came across the following passage, regarding the aesthetic-educative influence of one's environment.
good taste and aesthetic appreciation. If the eye is constantly greeted by harmonious objects, having elegance of form and color, a standard of taste naturally grows up. The effect of a tawdry, unarranged, and overdecorated environment works for the deterioration of taste, just as meager and barren surroundings starve out the desire for beauty. Against such odds, conscious teaching can hardly do more than convey second-hand information as to what others think. Such taste never becomes spontaneous and personally engrained, but remains a labored reminder of what those think to whom one has been taught to look up.
This just speaks of one's surroundings; it doesn't get into curricular issues like how much art and music students can or do get. I don't need to say much about the different visual experiences one gets from a poor, run-down school versus a well-financed, well-kept-up one. There's even a vast difference at the college level, between the campuses of Princeton and Stanford, on the one hand, and some urban community colleges, on the other.

Addressing the issue of aesthetic inequality may just give conservatives another excuse to see educators as unacceptably effete liberals. Yet if the capacity to appreciate and create beauty is one of the fundamental human capacities--as I'm sure that it is--then aesthetic inequality involves a pretty basic violation of human rights. Thus, it's something we should address.


william said...

Aesthetic Realism shows that racism arises from that ugly thing which is in everyone: contempt. Every instance of ethnic prejudice, from the most subtle to the most horrifically virulent, comes from the feeling.
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Leonard Waks said...

Good teaching is itself the orchestration of many flows of inputs, from disciplinary structures and concrete subject matters to students' inchoate longings and inarticulate expressions (and well-formed thoughts, when these are on hand), to materials from the surrounding life world of the school, into coherent experiences.

Even in a materially poor environment the imaginations and intellects of students and teachers can co-create beautiful and compelling worlds.

So maybe one starting point in thinking about aesthetic inequality is in the coherence, intelligence, and durability of teaching staffs.

Here too the suburbs far outrank the inner city schools, whose armies of substitutes, replacement teachers and beginners simply lack the necessary resources-- long experience with the childrens' worlds and free intelligence -- needed for the coherent orchestration that we call 'teaching'.

Beyond issues of inequality, the accountability regimes make this kind of orchestration close to impossible.

Susan Laird said...

I don't think that suburban schools and campuses, even the richest ones, necessarily offer the most aesthetically rich experiences to students. Poverty can sabotage the aesthetic experience of schools or campuses, but so can vulgar wealth such as I have seen in suburban schools and on suburban campuses. Artistic expressiveness can be low-budget or high-budget and still be remarkable. But arts education that cultivates aesthetic intelligence in/though all the emotions--sadness, anger, hope, joy--and all the senses--sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell, etc.--requires material support. Marching bands may not enhance education in artistic expressiveness as much as garage bands! But even garage bands require rather expensive instruments and skills. Education that neglects the learning of such artistic expressiveness is fundamentally anti-democratic.