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Social Aesthetics as Component for Theorizing Education Infrastructure

by Adam Attwood - July 17, 2019

This commentary adds to the discussion of theorizing education as infrastructure. The author discusses how aesthetics can be a part of the concept of school infrastructure.

This is a response to Francisco Ramos’s (2019) commentary “Toward a Theory of Schooling as Infrastructure” in which Ramos discusses the possibilities for new theorizing of how people interact with conditions across time and space in thinking about school as infrastructure. Ramos’s thoughtful and cogent discussion prompts further questions about the ways in which a shared objective school framework may be subject to subjective interpretation and how that can change over time. Specifically, the key idea here is the concept of educational infrastructure being as much a social infrastructure as anything else. I addressed this related concept in the interplay between objective and subjective constructs, in which school is a social infrastructure, as they relate to school culture across time and space through a test case study in my book Social Aesthetics and the School Environment (see Attwood, 2018). I posited a theory to explain how social constructs persist in modified forms throughout time and across geographies. The approach was mostly from the perspective of the field of aesthetics through mixed-methods inquiry, as infrastructure suggests both physical structure and social structure. This adds to the conversation to which Ramos (2019) refers because my study specifically gathered and analyzed data from preservice K-8 teachers who would be implementing curriculum in the first years of students’ experiences in the formal school environment. These initial years of influence in elementary and middle school are crucial in establishing students’ outlooks as they move into adolescence.

To address the idea of time and place within subjectivities that influence shared reality, I combined parts of Gestalt isomorphism (see Lehar, 2003) with Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy of the “fusion of horizons” (see Gadamer 1975/2013) to form a new theory. I explain this in substantial detail in my book using a mixed-methods case study approach to complete the new theory’s foundation. The concept of school-as-infrastructure is an interesting one because it provides the foundation and environment for social development that consists of the physical buildings and classrooms as well as the psychological structure within which individuals situate themselves, interact, and grow. Much of this is not necessarily something that can be counted or seen, per se, because individual minds are closed to the outside unless they speak, write, or present themselves in ways that other individuals can interpret that subjectivity and make sense of it, which itself leads into the discussion of maintaining a shared objectivity. To a certain extent this necessitates an essential curriculum and vocabulary to have a shared understanding of cultural components as they persist across time and space.

Those cultural components can and do become contested, as can be seen in many school environments, as social dynamics rarely remain static. In my own approach of going toward a theory, I posited a new theory that took the psychological—or, individual—and linked it to an “objective” outside reference point through mixed-methods. By taking multiple points of view together—as represented by survey data from the participating preservice K-8 teachers who would influence early childhood curriculum, the extant literature, and my external perspective—I could posit a new theory. In a way, this was applying what Rothbauer (2008) summarized as triangulation to achieve a new level of qualitative confidence. Such an approach seems to require interdisciplinary approaches to inquiry.

In the case study that formed the basis for a new theory related to this discussion, the fields were psychology, history, and anthropology, focusing on social variables as they relate to cultural development, change, and continuity in contested spaces. The theory that emerged was not developed before the data was collected; it emerged from the various data. Rather than going toward a theory, per se, the theory emerged as I stepped back to look at the whole research “image.” Sometimes, the findings as I interpreted them were disconcerting and decentered the researcher and—perhaps more interestingly—decentered the primary audience in ways. Sometimes the researcher and the primary audience do not get what they think they want from the study, especially if a theory emerges that may cause potentially difficult-to-control conversations. When the theory emerged rather than being moved toward or sought after, there seemed to be a surprising discovery mentality, like an exploratory archaeologist or decorative arts collector who is not sure what they are looking for but will know it when they find it. Even then, they may not understand all the implications of the new theory. Theories can tend to take on a life of their own once posited, as they can be like tools that can be used by people later for purposes not intended by the one who posited the theory in the first place.

While the aesthetic approach to infrastructure in schooling could tend to be both social (non-tangible) and architectural (tangible), the theory I posited adds a layer to that related to time and place that is historiographical and anthropological:

The archeophisomorph is a more or less ancient value or value matrix that is melded into the present culture. These three definitional assumptions of superstructure are summarized into definitional efficiency terms: (1) continued application, (2) root characteristic retention, and (3) cyclicality through aesthetic representation. Within those definitional assumptions of superstructure, there is one primary assumption: The assumption of modified persistence. (Attwood, 2018, p. 10)

Time, then, is a main component of infrastructure itself. As Gadamer (1975/2013) suggested, there is a “fusion of horizons” (p. 313) that is a mental space rather than a physical one, which affects interpretation. Aesthetics, as I interpret it in Social Aesthetics and the School Environment, is mental space, physical representation through the fine arts and decorative arts, and an awareness of identity in the school environment, which is pressured by external and internal factors. The internal factors are no less real, and may be more important in some cases, as they affect the individual’s interpretation of something that is in the shared objective space. As the theory took shape, the use of the word "factors" became more intentional, as it became integral to the mixed-methods study to give form to a mental landscape that always affects community.

There appears to be a renewed interest in time and memory in the past fifteen years or so across academic subjects, and it is from the field of aesthetics that this discussion resonates. Avant-garde approaches to the study of memory include such authors as W. G. Sebald, whose contemplative novels—such as The Emigrants (1996/2016, English translation)—encourage readers to consider the complexity of an individual’s interactions with others and with themselves across time and space. Interpretation becomes malleable to subjective vantage points, though a common reality should still be assumed in the background. Since schools are the objective background in which people spend much of their time for many years, it makes sense that new theories may emerge to identify or explain how social awareness, development, and interaction change or continue in the individual foreground. The theory presented in Social Aesthetics and the School Environment provides a framework to explore issues of cultural constructs across time and place.

Discussing theory, the ideas of theorization, theory’s purpose, and how to move towards a theory or develop a theory from a set of data is important. Within the context of teacher education, application of theory to practice tends to be emphasized, which makes sense for the context of teacher candidates. Encouraging students in teacher education programs to study theory continues to be important because classroom practice must have roots in the foundation of theory to provide a holistic picture of what the goals of a given curriculum are for the teacher and students. Aesthetics combines frameworks for an additional way to consider education infrastructure, which is the school environment. The study of theory seems essential for considering what goals to establish for a school.


Attwood, A. I. (2018). Social aesthetics and the school environment: A case study of the chivalric ethos. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gadamer, H. G. (2013). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.). New York, NY: Bloomsbury. (Original work published 1975)

Lehar, S. (2003). Gestalt isomorphism and the primacy of subjective conscious experience: A Gestalt bubble model. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26(4), 375–444.

Ramos, F. (2019, May 22). Towards a theory of schooling as infrastructure. Teachers College Record. Retrieved from https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=22802

Rothbauer, P. (2008). Triangulation. In L. M. Given (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (pp. 893–894). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Sebald, W. G. (2016). The emmigrants (M. Hulse, Trans.). New York, NY: New Directions. (Original work published 1996)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 17, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22974, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:01:28 PM

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