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The Aesthetics of Knowing and Teaching

by Kenneth R. Conklin - 1970

In this essay the author claims that knowing and teaching share certain characteristics usually thought of only in connection with the aesthetic appreciation of art, music, poetry, sculpture, and other products of creative activity. Knowing and teaching may be appreciated and criticized in much the same ways we customarily appreciate or criticize artistic products. Creativity in knowing and teaching may therefore be improved by studying artistic creativity.

Among topics of interest to educators, the nature of knowing and the nature of teaching must certainly rank foremost. In this essay I shall claim that knowing and teaching share certain characteristics usually thought of only in connection with the aesthetic appreciation of art, music, poetry, sculpture, and other products of creative activity. Knowing and teaching may be appreciated and criticized in much the same ways we customarily appreciate or criticize artistic products. Creativity in knowing and teaching may therefore be improved by studying artistic creativity.

It is not necessary to be a knower of something in order to be a teacher of it, but most consciously intended teaching in school requires that the teacher be a knower of his subject matter. Of course, there are times when we teach some particular things that are inadvertently taught. For example, our stern demeanor may teach our students to hate us or to know that we are unpleasant to associate with. But if we consciously wish our students to know something and if we engage in the effort to teach it to them, we first have the knowledge which we then attempt to convey. In addition, we teach in the hope that students will become knowers of the things we are teaching. Knowing is therefore basic to teaching, and the study of knowing may help us improve teaching.

The Aesthetics of Knowing

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy which studies beauty in order to determine what beauty is and how it should be judged. As it will be used in the present discussion, however, "aesthetic" is not synonymous with "beautiful" but has a much broader scope. "Aesthetic" is the opposite of "discursive." The aesthetic aspect of a thing is its qualitative appearance as perceived and appreciated in and of itself. The shape of a bell, its color and texture, and the sound it makes when struck are all aesthetic properties of the bell, even though the bell or its sound may be quite ugly. A person's nose, eyes, ears, mouth, and skin color are all parts of his body. If we compare the shape of the nose with the shape of the eyes, we are performing discursive reasoning or criticism, and we are no longer engaged in aesthetic experience itself. However, if we appreciate the shape of the nose in and for itself, or if we view the person's physiognomy as a whole, we are then experiencing part of his aesthetic aspect. As long as we appreciate or contemplate something directly, without speaking or thinking about it, we are engaged in an aesthetic experience.

In this sense a concept or a system of concepts may also have an aesthetic aspect. A mathematical concept or proof may be beautiful or ugly, and may be appreciated in itself for its form or structure. As long as a concept or system of concepts is perceived or appreciated in and of itself, without talking or thinking or reasoning about it, its aesthetic aspect is being viewed. If we think of knowledge as truth which has been set down on display, then the study of methods for exhibiting truth is a branch of aesthetics. Logic, as the study of good and bad forms for exhibiting ideas, is therefore a branch of aesthetics. A good proof may be called elegant, by which we mean that the proof uses only the necessary number of steps and assumptions. An elegant proof is beautiful because of its simplicity.

Knowledge on display as a finished product is quite different from knowledge as an idea in the mind of the knower. Logic as the criticism of methods for exhibiting knowledge is a well-developed branch of aesthetics. Less well-developed is the aesthetic study of concepts or ideas, apart from the study of how they may be exhibited. Ideas do have an aesthetic aspect, as we all acknowledge whenever we speak of a good idea (not a useful one but a good one) or whenever we talk about being obsessed with a powerful idea. Although ideas do not have colors or sounds, we sometimes claim that two ideas either clash or harmonize with each other. An irrelevant idea is one that does not belong in the collection of ideas being contemplated.

Knowledge on display is more visible, and hence more widely studied, than knowledge as an idea in someone's mind. Yet someone must have an idea before the idea can be displayed. Perhaps the aesthetic properties of displays of knowledge could therefore be traced to the aesthetic properties of ideas. Although some philosophers would claim that there are no ideas but only displays, we all can recognize that we are able to understand and criticize displays only because we have ideas about the displays or because our ideas can be contrasted with those being displayed.

The act of knowing is different from either knowledge on display or knowledge as an idea in someone's mind. The act of knowing is the least visible of the three, and the most basic. Only through an act of knowing can an idea be formed and later expressed. The aesthetic study of the act of knowing is even less well developed, although it is more important, than the aesthetic study of ideas. Perhaps the aesthetic properties of ideas could be traced to the aesthetic properties of the act of knowing.

In the act of knowing, the mind comes into contact with and recognizes truth. Long ago, the philosopher Plato told us that goodness, truth, and beauty are all aspects of the same thing, which he called the Form of the Good. When a painting or a symphony is praised as beautiful, the person doing the praising admits that he has been seduced into loving the masterpiece. Something which is beautiful calls forth our aesthetic responsiveness, making us fall in love with it. Beauty demands the beholder's allegiance, and the sensitive perceiver does not hesitate to give it. In the same way, truth demands the learner's allegiance. A scholar is someone in love with knowledge, who has been seduced by the beauty of the truth he is seeking. Thus the act of knowing is the aesthetic experience of recognizing truth, just as the act of appreciating is the aesthetic experience of recognizing beauty. To know is to appreciate, and to appreciate is to know.

Truth and beauty are only two parts of the Platonic triad; the third is goodness. Just as the act of knowing truth is like the act of appreciating beauty, so also the act of knowing truth is like the act of performing a good deed. The allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic makes it clear that knowledge of profound truths may justifiably be called "wisdom," and wisdom changes the personality of its possessor. According to Plato, the intellectual pilgrim, upon having a profound insight into deep truths, undergoes a mystical experience (or a religious conversion) which makes him good. The goodness of the wise man shines forth as an inner beauty or charisma, which makes the people love him as a leader. Thus it is that knowing the truth affects the personality of the knower in much the same way as doing a good deed affects the personality of the doer.

Plato and the mystics tell us that wisdom can be known but never spoken. This phenomenon of ineffability is a common experience in ordinary life. The expert has important knowledge, but he is unable to express it in a way which the nonexpert can understand. A stranger in a city finds it difficult to know what route to follow, and directions given him by the natives often prove more confusing than helpful. Although I may know Mr. Jones very well, I have great difficulty describing him to you, and you will still have trouble identifying him when he steps off the train.

The act of knowing is a private affair, so only the knower can know whether he knows. So it is that the stranger in town is the only one who really knows whether he understands the directions given to him by a native. The native must ask, "Do you understand?" and when the stranger replies, "Yes," the native still cannot be sure whether the stranger was merely being polite or whether he really did understand.

Not only is the act of knowing a private affair, it also requires the knower to make a personal commitment to the truth which is known. A scholar defends his ideas with the same tenacity and fervor as a lover defends his beloved or a patriot defends his country. When we come to know something, we agree to accept it as true, and we commit ourselves to believe it. No argument is ever so powerful that it can force someone to agree with the conclusion. No argument ever fully or accurately expresses its conclusion. Rather, a good argument is well stated so that the hearer comes to understand the conclusion; and a good argument is sufficiently convincing that the hearer comes to agree with the conclusion. The act of knowing is private and requires the freewill commitment of the knower.

Tacit Knowing

An excellent discussion of the privacy and personal commitment involved in the act of knowing can be found in the works of Michael Polanyi.1 In addition to describing personal commitment, Polanyi also tells us about the way in which the perception of data can give rise to knowledge which comprehends and goes beyond the data.2 When I recognize a friend upon seeing his face, I am confronted with raw data which I somehow interpret all at once. The data are simply the colored shapes representing his eyes, nose, mouth, etc. But I do not pay any particular attention to the eyes, nose, and mouth—rather, I immediately recognize my friend and shout, "Hello, Joe!" As Polanyi would say, I am attending subsidiarily to facial cues for the sake of attending focally to Joe himself.

Aesthetic experience always involves this kind of "tacit knowing." Every whole is composed of various parts, but we look through and beyond the parts to see the whole. Sometimes it is possible to examine each part individually, but in doing so we lose our awareness of the whole. Prolonged concentration on a part renders it meaningless, since the part is then viewed out of the context of the whole in which it has its meaning. Thus the prolonged repetition of a single word soon leads us to concentrate on the sound of the word, so that we lose our recognition of its contextual meaning.

Of course, we may shift back and forth between the study of the parts and the appreciation of the whole to which they contribute. As long as we appreciate something as a whole, without speaking or thinking about its parts, we are engaged in aesthetic experience. Thus we recognize Joe and appreciate his mood without analyzing the separate features of his face. But when we pay direct attention to the parts of a thing, we are engaged in criticism or analysis or discursive reasoning, and we are no longer engaged in aesthetic appreciation of the thing itself. Thus in describing Joe to a stranger, we enumerate and describe each important characteristic of his face. We may recognize immediately that Joe appears to be angry, but if asked to explain why we believe Joe to be angry, we would begin to describe particular facial features such as wrinkled forehead, pursed lips, narrowed eyes, etc. Once an observer has noticed all of these particular characteristics, he may then integrate them into an appreciation of a meaningful whole (the recognition of Joe's mood).

The act of knowing has precisely the same characteristics as the act of aesthetic appreciation—both occur when the mind integrates a host of subsidiary cues and recognizes the truth toward which they contribute. A scientist who has thoroughly studied some set of phenomena may discover a law of nature which his evidence supports, just as someone who has thoroughly examined the blotches of paint on a canvas may come to recognize the object being represented or the mood being expressed. If someone fails to understand an idea which we know to be true, we may give him examples in the hope that by studying the examples he will come to recognize the idea which comprehends those examples. Giving examples to explain an idea is like pointing out facial characteristics to describe someone's mood, while recognizing the idea which comprehends the examples is like recognizing the mood which is represented by the facial characteristics.

We have already noted that the concepts "harmony" and "dissonance" apply to ideas as well as to colors and sounds. The various doctrines belonging to a philosophic or religious system harmonize, while doctrines from opposing systems may clash. If we have read most of the doctrines espoused in a philosophy or a religious faith, we may accurately predict which other doctrines would be accepted and which would be rejected. Upon hearing certain doctrines for the first time, we can accurately attribute them to the correct philosopher, just as we can accurately attribute to the correct composer a symphony which we are hearing for the first time.

The concepts "empathy" and "distance" also apply to the relationship between the knower and that which is known. If we look at a painting of a pillar supporting great weight, we can improve our appreciation of the painting by temporarily "becoming" the pillar and "feeling" the weight. Likewise, if we are studying a philosophic or religious system, we can understand it better by temporarily agreeing with its doctrines. An actor identifies with the character he is portraying to produce a brilliant impersonation. So also a scholar may agree with a doctrine he is attacking to be able to "read between the lines" and show the absurd conclusions entailed by the doctrine.

In appreciating a painting we must retain sufficient "distance" so that we do not become emotionally involved. Thus it is difficult to view a propaganda poster as a work of art because our aesthetic sensitivity becomes overwhelmed with passion. Likewise, in understanding a scholarly idea, we must retain sufficient distance so that we do not become emotionally involved as a committed disciple. Scholarly expertise is lost when the scholar's critical powers become overwhelmed by his emotional passions.

All of the debates in the theory of aesthetics are applicable to the aesthetics of knowing. For example, one of the major problems of aesthetics is the question whether beauty exists in the object or only in the mind of the beholder. In talking about the aesthetics of knowing, we may phrase the same question by asking whether truth exists in the idea or only in the mind of the knower. If we answer that truth exists in the ide* (beauty exists in the object), then the act of knowing involves a commitment to something which has a right to demand our allegiance (the act of appreciating involves a recognition of something that has a right to elicit our reverence and admiration). If we answer that truth exists only in the mind of the knower (beauty exists only in the mind of the beholder), then the act of knowing is nothing more than a feeling of certainty about a myth we have invented (the act of appreciating is nothing more than a feeling of pleasure about a visceral condition our body is undergoing).

The Aesthetics of Teaching

As discussed in the introduction to this paper, it is not necessary to be a knower of something in order to be a teacher of it, but most schooling involves the conscious effort by a teacher to make his students knowers of ideas which the teacher already knows. To teach ideas which he already knows, a teacher must put those ideas on display. Thus it is that the aesthetics of knowledge on display (usually called "logic") becomes important to the teacher.

If teaching is the act of displaying knowledge, then all the criteria for displaying knowledge properly can be applied to teaching. But the teacher is concerned with more than merely displaying knowledge: the knowledge must be displayed in a way which students comprehend, and the display must "be interesting and psychologically nondamaging as well as intellectually understandable. So it is that the aesthetics of knowledge on display provides a framework which limits the aesthetics of teaching, but the complete determination of the aesthetics of teaching requires attention to a host of additional factors. The aesthetics of teaching must be determined not only by the aesthetics of knowledge on display, but also by the aesthetics of ideas either actually or potentially in the mind of a knower (personality psychology is a part of this), and the aesthetics of the act of knowing (psychology of learning is a part of this).

Aesthetic expression always occurs by embodying an idea or feeling in some physical medium: art employs pigments on canvas, music employs vibrations of air, and poetry makes use of written or spoken words. Communication can be thought of as a kind of aesthetic expression in which the artist (or sender) tries to express his idea (or message) in such a way that the beholder (or receiver) will have the same idea. Both aesthetic expression and the encoding of a message require the artist or sender to mold some kind of structure in a physical medium. Both aesthetic appreciation and the decoding of a message require the beholder or receiver to physically experience the structure in the medium and then to interpret (i.e., acquire an idea from) the experience. "Accurate" communication takes place whenever the receiver is led to have the same idea as the sender expressed. Aesthetic expression is much more than mere communication precisely because we do not insist on "accuracy," and because there is great richness in the variety and tone o£ the "messages" contained in a single masterpiece.

At this point we may recall Polanyi's work on tacit knowing by noting that the structure in the medium gives rise to aesthetic appreciation precisely when we make our awareness of the structure itself subsidiary to a focal awareness of the message which is embodied. Marshall McLuhan has claimed that the medium is the message.3 Certainly he is correct if we only appreciate the colors and shapes in a painting without attempting to interpret what we see. But McLuhan's thesis is valid only for some of the modern optical or geometric art, and surely would not apply to the analysis of ancient masterpieces or contemporary social protest art. As Polanyi would say, we look at the structured medium for the sake of seeing through it to the idea which the structured medium tacitly indicates.

The act of teaching is always a form of aesthetic expression, and is usually intended as a form of communication. The teacher's actions and words, like works of art, employ physical media to embody ideas and feelings. To whatever extent the teacher is attempting to teach subject matter, the act of teaching may be viewed as a form of communication. In this case the teacher's gestures, words, assignments, etc., can be regarded as structures in the classroom environment, designed to express the teacher's ideas in such a. way that students who encounter the environmental structures will come to have the same ideas.

But teaching is more than the deliberate communication of subject matter. The teacher's actions and words embody far more than the subject matter intended by a school's curricular planners. When someone teaches, his actions and words embody his entire personality, including his long-term values and his momentary feelings. For this reason we say that a teacher is a value exemplar, and that he influences the character-formation of his students. The teacher's actions may induce his students to see beyond the actions to the values which they embody. Thus the teacher as a value exemplar may seduce the emulation of his students, as a masterpiece seduces the appreciation of its beholders or a truth seduces the acknowledgment and commitment of its knowers.

If a teacher works too hard at following some recommended method, his lack of aesthetic authenticity threatens to destroy creativity in both himself and his students. The great teachers of the past were great because they had profound intuitions and expressed them in aesthetically pleasing ways. Their methods were good because the methods were appropriate to the subject matter and the particular students being taught and the personality of the teacher. Methods of teaching disembodied from subject matter, pupils, and teachers are like grammatical patterns disembodied from the actual use of a language. The novice in teaching relies on memorized methods and gives a clumsy performance just as the novice in speaking a foreign language relies on memorized grammar tables and constructs sentences slowly and awkwardly. Good teaching, like good speaking, requires fluency in the medium together with authenticity of feeling and expression.

The concepts "empathy" and "distance" also apply to the aesthetics of teaching. An educational situation (students, desks, books, lighting, etc.) can be appreciated by a teacher in the same way a masterpiece is appreciated by an observer. The teacher may analyze the separate components of a situation (as an observer may analyze the separate parts of a masterpiece), or he may appreciate the situation as a whole (as an observer may appreciate the gestalt of a masterpiece) by relying on a subsidiary awareness of the parts in order to have a focal awareness of the whole. The teacher must empathize with his students and with the situation to understand them and do a good job of teaching. On the other hand, the teacher must retain sufficient distance from each student to be able to objectively diagnose his needs; and he must retain sufficient distance from the classroom situation to adjust his own behavior to meet the legitimate demands of the situation without becoming emotionally involved. Most, if not all, so-called "discipline problems" can be viewed as arising from an improper balance between empathy and distance. "Unprofessional behavior" occurs if empathy is too great, and uninspiring coldness occurs if distance is too great.

Authenticity in teaching, together with a proper balance between empathy and distance, distinguishes good teaching from teaching which is mediocre or poor. Authenticity and balance can occur if the teacher seeks to regard his task as a synthesis between work and play, for any creative task is better performed when regarded in this manner. Dewey,4 Froebel,5 and other great educators have recognized that work and play are basically the same when each is properly done. Play, as distinguished from indolence or sloth, involves conscious effort in working toward some goal. We enjoy playing a game most when we take it seriously and try hard to win. Interest and effort thus go hand in hand. Likewise, work can be distinguished from drudgery only if work is permeated with the play attitude. Work can be creative and enjoyable, while drudgery is performed only because it must be. Work and play thus converge in activities which are purposeful, creative, serious, and enjoyable both for themselves and for what they produce. Good teaching, like good art, occurs only when work and play converge.

To enhance the quality of his performance by synthesizing work and play, the teacher should enter the classroom without any unalterable plans. Of course, a teacher must have mastered the subject matter, and he must have some idea what topics he will cover. But he would do well to have done his preparation far enough ahead of time so that he does not enter the classroom with any already-formulated presentation. The act of teaching will then be a creative effort as the teacher wrestles with subject matter and organizes it in front of his students. The teacher will then more easily empathize with the difficulties his students encounter in mastering the material and will show them by example how to overcome those difficulties. As the teacher engages in creative problem-solving in full view of his students, they will become stirred by his creativity and will learn not only subject matter, but creativity and intellectual appreciation as well. This method of preparation and delivery improves the likelihood that both teacher and student will make the structure of the medium subordinate to and a servant of the message which it embodies. As we may recall, the act of seeing through a subsidiary structure to a focal message is the act of knowing.

Just as a scientist makes discoveries by seeing through the structure of experience to the truth which is embodied, so too a teacher's experiences in educational situations may point toward insight into principles of good teaching. The teacher is then a learner in his own classroom. Indeed, the whole of our experience teaches us tacitly to know the truth. As Plato would say, the World of Appearances is a structured medium which expresses the World of Forms, and we can know the World of Forms if we but have the wisdom to see it through a subordinated World of Appearances.

1 Michael Polanyi. Personal Knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958.

2 Michael Polanyi. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966. See also "Tacit Knowing: Its Bearing on Some Problems of Philosophy," Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 34, 4, October 1962, pp. 601-616.

3 Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967

4 John Dewey. Democracy and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.

5 Friedrich Froebel. The Education of Man, translated by W. N. Hailmann. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1912.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 72 Number 2, 1970, p. 257-266
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1638, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 4:46:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Kenneth Conklin
    Emory University
    Kenneth R. Conklin is on the faculty of educational studies at Emory University, Atlanta.
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