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Culture and the Arts in Education: Critical Essays on Shaping Human Experience

reviewed by Mary Stone Hanley - August 07, 2006

coverTitle: Culture and the Arts in Education: Critical Essays on Shaping Human Experience
Author(s): Ralph A. Smith
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746541, Pages: 216, Year: 2006
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This compilation of essays, written between 1973 and 1995, represents Smith’s ideas on the arts (particularly, the visual arts), education, aesthetics, aesthetic education, the humanities, humanism, diversity, and culture.  His work underscores the value and purpose of the arts in human knowing, and the need for aesthetic education for a moral and democratic society. The general synthesis of his ideas is that engagement with the humanities via the arts provides an aesthetic experience that connects the aesthetically skilled and knowledgeable percipient with self, human truths, and Western values.  To enable the fullest engagement with the arts, an aesthetics education involves instruction to achieve critical judgment, analysis, and an understanding of the historical contexts and continuities of works of art (p. 117).

Chapters 1 through 3 provide a framework for Smith’s perspectives on aesthetics and education.  In Chapter 1, titled “Arts education as liberal education,” Smith begins with a discussion of Western culture as the flowering of the values of ancient Greece, wherein the purpose of education was to shape the whole person imbued with the virtues celebrated by Greek culture and society.  He proposes that contemporary education in the arts and humanities can provide one with the means to regain the Grecian tradition of liberal humanist education.  He suggests this can be achieved by helping learners to develop an understanding of culturally valuable works of art as a way to learn about themselves and their cultural traditions.  He posits that present-day liberal education has been eroded by the effort to make the curriculum relevant to students.  He regrets the fact that “classics of the Western intellectual and cultural heritage are increasingly examined primarily for devil signs believed responsible for most of our contemporary problems” (p. 9) rather than being acknowledged for the forms of communication, the significance of heritage and continuity, and the critical thought required to study their form and meaning.

In Chapter 2, “Philosophy and theory of aesthetic education,” Smith uses the manner of scholarship described in Chapter 1 to develop a theoretical framework by presenting the ideas of four authors: Monroe C. Beardsley, Harold Osborne, Neil Goodman, and Eugene Kaelin, who theorize about the meaning of the aesthetic experience.  Each of the theorists discusses the characteristics of art, percipience, and the resultant transformative response.  Smith points out that art enables percipients to see the world in new ways, to freely imagine and renew experience, and stresses the need for aesthetic education to engage learners with a significant aspect of human knowing that can only be gained through the arts.

Smith continues an insightful exploration of these theorists of the aesthetic experience in Chapter 3, “Art, the human career, and aesthetic education,” and presents an added rationale for aesthetic education.   He theorizes that the aesthetic experience may be the foremost reason that we enjoy great art; it is embedded in our instinctive creative urge and the enjoyment of compelling order.  Furthermore, it is an integrative process of cognitive and affective knowing that enhances the quality of human experience. Through the arts we see and feel the familiar in unfamiliar ways.  Great works of art evoke potent aesthetic experiences and consequently develop “aesthetic value” [Smith’s italics] (p. 35).  

Smith suggests three benefits of aesthetics education: “the refinement of perception, the stimulation of imagination, and the presentation of ideals of human possibility” (p. 41).  In Chapter 10, “Towards percipience: A humanities curriculum for arts education,” he designs a K-12 arts-as-humanities curriculum that begins with exposure and familiarization in the K-3 years, and later goes on to increase perceptual training, historical study, exemplar appreciation, and critical analysis in the higher grades. According to Smith, the study of the humanities is a study of the arts of creation, communication, continuity, and criticism that recalls the study of human excellence through some of its finest examples.  Such a curriculum, Smith argues, develops aesthetic percipience, an ability to gather the rewards of the experience of the arts with intelligence and sensitivity (p. 125).

Throughout his writing Smith grapples with the discourse of multiculturalism as an assault on Western values, which he asserts, are rooted in European traditions and expressions.  In spite of his thoughtful writing about aesthetics, the arts, and critical thinking, his faltering steps into the complexities of difference in education and society raise a number of contradictions.  For example, on the one hand he calls for a common culture that “stresses shared and universal values,” and on the other hand callously opposes “a plethora of ethnic enclaves and special interest groups each bent on pressing rights derived from past and present injustices and inequities” (p. 56).  I am always perplexed by this attitude of citizens of the United States who seem to have forgotten that without the protests of ethnic enclaves and special interest groups there would be no Bill of Rights, slavery and Jim Crow would still be in place, children and their parents would still be working 12 to 14 hour days for little money, and women would have no legal rights. Smith seems to ignore the argument that debate and protest are democratic values in the United States.  Furthermore, his words make it hardly believable that he would care about experience—aesthetic or otherwise—or an excellence curriculum for all children (p. 100) when he has so little regard for the work that has been done and lives given so that all children may thrive.  

In Chapter 9, “Aesthetic education:  A critical necessity,” Smith accurately writes that in a time of travail in society, the arts and aesthetic education can remind us of human values and excellence through the study of works of great merit, aesthetic vision, critical thinking, and the ability to embrace alternative cultures.  In the discussion of alternative cultures he describes four types of multiculturalists: exegetical, dogmatic, agnostic, and dialectical, in an effort to explain his perspective on the correct and incorrect ways to achieve multiculturalism.  Dogmatic and dialectical types seem to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum.  He writes: “Dogmatic multiculturalists…assume that their culture is superior to the one under scrutiny and that the sooner the latter can be transformed the better” (p. 118).  Smith supports the dialectical multiculturalist who makes a commitment to self-reflection, is as objective as possible, compares and contrasts, and uses dialogic reasoning, which in this context is “an open-mindedness that initially presumes neither the superiority of one’s own culture nor the one under scrutiny” (p. 119). He presents an example of the self-reflective and dialogic multiculturalist when he discusses the ideas of Trillig and Gertz in Chapter 12, “The uses of cultural diversity.”  However, it appears that he does not practice dialectical multiculturalism; his beliefs about the superiority of the European racial and cultural roots of the United States are at the center of his 30 years of theorizing and are better represented by his “dogmatic” categorization.  Whenever he mentions multiculturalism in theory or curriculum, there is always the caveat that attention to difference threatens what he thinks of as higher Western beliefs and practices stemming from Greek traditions he so ardently champions.  

Culture is complex and ever changing, not reified.  European culture is indeed a rich aspect of US culture, but the cultural roots and transformations of U.S. traditions are also profoundly African and Indigenous.  Additionally, unlike the picture Smith paints, all European traditions have not been laudable; otherwise there would be no need to press for rights against the aforementioned past and present injustices and inequities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 07, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12648, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 1:07:22 PM

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About the Author
  • Mary Hanley
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    MARY STONE HANLEY is the assistant professor of Arts Education and Multicultural Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in arts integration and multicultural education. She received a M.Ed. from the University of Washington in Educational Communications and Technology and a PhD from the U of Washington in Curriculum and Instruction. She has more than 35 years of experience in education as a public school teacher, as an artist and arts educator, as a community educator working with children at risk for failure in public schools, and as a university faculty member. Dr. Hanley is also a playwright, screenwriter, and poet. She has had nine plays and two films produced for urban youth audiences. Her research interests include the arts as vehicles of agency, voice, and culture in education and educational research.
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