Curriculum and the Aesthetic Life: Hermeneutics, Body, Democracy, and Ethics in Curriculum Theory and Practice
reviewed by Jessica A. Heybach - August 15, 2015
Title: Curriculum and the Aesthetic Life: Hermeneutics, Body, Democracy, and Ethics in Curriculum Theory and Practice
Author(s): Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433117657, Pages: 398, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com
Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones reclaims curriculum as an art form in his provocative text titled Curriculum and the Aesthetic Life: Hermeneutics, Body, Democracy, and Ethics in Curriculum Theory and Practice. The text is divided into three main sections: a) Thinking curriculum and aesthetics: The ills of the world, the loss of the body; b) Curriculum critique, curriculum actions: Aesthetics, education, and the irony of authenticity; c) Researching through art and aesthetics, and concludes with an epilogue.
Section One situates Blumenfeld-Jones understanding of curriculum studies and aesthetic concerns more globally than simply as artwork. He rightly attaches this type of curricular studies to issues of freedom and the learning of freedom through the felt experience of aesthetics. In Section Two, he offers a rich discussion of a much ignored aspect of critical aesthetic democratic educationthe curriculum of dance. In particular, Blumenfeld-Jones keenly deconstructs Gardners notion of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and describes the failure of schools to embrace a curriculum fully aware of the body. Although his connection to the issue of authenticity in curriculum is novel, I had hoped this aspect would be more vivid to the non-dancer. Section Three delves into arts-based research and offers examples of how this type of research can provide new forms of representation for both the process and outcomes of research. This section captures the ever-present demand of qualitative researchers to resist traditional means when alternative ends are desired. In fact, the story-telling quality of this text provides a foot-bridge between practice and theory that makes this text keenly readable for the student of curriculum.
Curriculum and the Aesthetic Life provides educators with the contours of a lost dimension of curriculumthe critical aesthetic dimension. Although curriculum, as a discipline, has been the heir of such intellectual giants as Maxine Green and Eliot Eisner, something about curriculum as art seems to elude practitioners within public schools in particular. Educators today have had all their proverbial frequencies regarding curriculum jammed with technocratic and instrumental variations of curriculum that claim scientific, evidence-based, certitude. Persistent calls for certainty about what constitutes learning, pedagogy, and life in classrooms has done significant damage to the felt experience educators create within classrooms. After reading this text, I was left with the question: What really goes on in classrooms that mimic or prepare children for the adult life we know they are destined to live? It appears that many have labored to create a system and curriculum that posits the idea that life is to be found, information is to be forged for, and that you must find yourself in a world where the future is already determined, and children just have to find it.
At first, this may lead many educators to adopt variations of inquiry and problem-based learning in their classroom. Both of these pedagogies utilize a metaphor of discovery by design and many critical curriculum theorists would be in support of such endeavors. Blumenfeld-Jones reminds educators that the world, and in particular a just and democratic world, is made, and not found or discovered. Thus, the artist, dancer, or musician, generally speaking, appear by far the most in touch with this understanding of curriculum-in-the-making. Although, Blumenfeld-Jones adds (and I agree) the true nature of science is that of creation, as well. Consequently, the calls for more scientific rigor, replication, and objectivity distort the lived experience of scientists in similar ways. Blumenfeld-Jones escapes the traps of art-science binaries that are so common in discussions of aesthetic education. Furthermore, this text reminds us all that we enact and embody the world through our actions; thus, the world is made and remade daily.
Turning back to classrooms, Blumenfeld-Jones describes various personal curricular experiences with students of all ages engaged in aesthetic activities. From these descriptions, often awkward moments emerge when students were asked to inhabit artistic expression via the body for the first time. It is clear that the bulk of educational experiences for these students did little to prepare them for the activities Blumenfeld-Jones offers. Students who spend years in schools often make nothing of meaningthey create nothing, but the occasional artifact once they exit the early elementary grades. This contemporary reality of curriculum results in an intense lack of purpose and alienation inherent within the daily work in which students participate. Furthermore, this type of curriculum neglects the very experience of creation that is so central to the type of life Blumenfeld-Jones puts forth.
Eisner (1985) argued there are multiple types of curriculum that can exist (explicit, implicit, hidden) within a school, and there is an often ignored type of curriculum he titled the null curriculum. The null curriculum is that which is omitted from the curriculum. At first, this is thought of as an omission of content. But, Blumenfeld-Jones fully describes what I would call the null experience of schooling. Unfortunately, the lack of aesthetic experiences that allow for opportunities to create and make somethinganythingfurther entrenches students in a disposition toward lived experience that leads them away from democracy. Blumenfeld-Jones begs educators to put down their measurable outcomes, lesson plans, and rubrics and think more holistically about curriculum and instruction through a hermeneutic exploration of the arts.
As for the form of this text, Blumenfeld-Jones certainly showcases the close alliance between form and function that can occur in academic writing and research. The methodology of this text is akin to Kincheloes (2001) notion of critical bricolage in educational research, or the artistic tradition of assemblage. The struggle I encountered when reading Blumenfeld-Jones is that he relies upon an intensely diverse assortment of intellectual traditions to make his various arguments. He weaves together a variety of traditions (philosophical, historical, sociological, and literary) that may or may not be suitable for the task at hand. This aspect will be particularly true for the reader who is accustomed to reading within the confines of disciplines. The text is indisputably interdisciplinary and offers ample insight in places where the argument is succinct and lucid.
However, the argument wanders, and occasionally leaves the reader astray in a maze of theoretical components. The text tends to feel overly assembled rather than whole as chapters change the direction of thought without explicit connections. However, this stylistic concern is forgivable because Blumenfeld-Jones does not claim to be putting forth a text that is otherwise. Each chapter can be read individually (many were written for other writing projects), and does not need other chapters to help build a grand argument. The eclectic assemblage of ideas utilizes the ancient and the contemporary to buttress what can be seen as a compilation of his lifes work within curriculum studies. Finally, Blumenfeld-Jones offers curriculum theorists himself as a heuristic. His narrative is his life, and the resulting exploration of his personal and intellectual experience further develops the aesthetic dimension of curriculum studies.
Eisner, E. (1985). The educational imagination: On design and evaluation of school programs. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
Kincheloe, J. (2001). Describing the bricolage: Conceptualizing a new rigor in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, (7) 6, 679-692.