Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Moral Perception through Aesthetics: Engaging Imaginations in Educational Ethics

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Moral Perception through Aesthetics: Engaging Imaginations in Educational Ethics

Article excerpt

Admittedly, reasoning can direct seeing. One might look into the trunk of a car to find the cause of a bothersome rattle. But being situationally appreciative is not like being a detective who hypothesizes about a cause on the basis of evidence. Instead, it is much like aesthetic appreciation; that is, it is a matter of letting the most striking feature of a situation catch one's eye much as we let the aesthetically prominent features of a painting capture our attention when we perceive beauty. A visual ability is at work here, not an ability to reason.

--Bricker, 1993, p. 15

It is a hot September afternoon and I am standing with the students in my educational ethics seminar around a large painting in the Art Museum on Miami University's campus. A group of us are examining the canvas titled Hey, Let's Have Some Red Man/The Arraignment, painted by Philip Morsberger. It depicts a White man reaching into a pack of Red Man chewing tobacco, a smile on his face with other smiling faces of White men around him. These are the murderers of the three civil rights workers--Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner--that left this very campus in the Freedom Summer of '64 and were killed 2 days later in Mississippi. Morsberger painted Red Man from a photograph of the smiling, laughing killers sitting in the courtroom of their own arraignment. The two Morsberger paintings we're examining today in class consist of dark and disturbing images from this particular chapter of the Civil Rights era, cast in striking, sepia-toned, realist style. It is a chapter of history that these students have only read about in books and seen in movies, but in whose legacy they live and work.

The students had been instructed to carefully look. "Examine the paintings, noting what you see, what you think it means, and what emotional responses it evokes," we requested as we took them into the gallery. (1) A group of master's students focusing on degree programs from reading education to secondary math to higher education administration, the students had enrolled 1 month before in an applied ethics for educators course. For several weeks they had engaged in the typical sorts of activities found in educational philosophy courses: textual exegesis of texts in the field, dialogue focused on applying moral theory to practical questions and problems, and case analysis using moral dilemmas emerging from educational practice. The course itself begins with the three-language moral framework provided by Robert Nash in "Real World" Ethics (1996), a useful text providing students with a rich trio of moral languages in which to frame and understand their own moral thinking. Nash's discursive metaphor for applied ethical decision making--a first language of foundational metaphysical beliefs, a second language of virtue and moral communities, and a third language of moral principles--gives students a complex framework for moral reflection. Students learn, through these languages, to better articulate and defend their moral decisions as educators. So in being asked to look and use a new set of senses and intelligences today, the students begin another kind of ethical and professional inquiry.

Inquiry based in the aesthetic domain has a rich legacy in educational philosophy and teacher education (Dewey, 1934; Garrison, 1997, 2003; Girod & Wong, 2002; Greene, 1995, 2001; Hansen, 2004; Jackson, 1998). Aesthetic experiences through such exemplary programs as the Lincoln Center Institute's Teacher Education Collaborative lead teachers to think in new ways about student learning and curriculum (Greene, 2001). However, aesthetic experiences and inquiry are less commonly used in that subfield of philosophy known as educational ethics. Teaching ethics to educators typically involves the work of helping them to reason, that is, to understand the various arguments for and against ethical action, and to help them engage in their own moral problem solving by reasoning through moral cases. …

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