Is the Casting of Utilitarian as Discordant with Arts Education Philosophy Justified?

By Kopkas, Jeremy | Journal of Thought, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Is the Casting of Utilitarian as Discordant with Arts Education Philosophy Justified?


Kopkas, Jeremy, Journal of Thought


Introduction

The term "utilitarian" has a negative connotation in arts education, especially among those who justify the arts' inclusion in the general curriculum as aesthetic education. Those who support the notion that the arts are valuable in the general curriculum say it is so because of the arts' connection to aesthetics. Supporters of aesthetic education assert that the arts promote uniquely artistic ideals instead of mere utilitarian goals. That is, the arts are not a handmaiden for the promotion of extra-artistic ends. This particular view of the term utilitanan has led to arguments in the field resulting in persistent partisan divisions. One group sees the arts as something distinctive, separate, and worthy of study for its own sake, while another believes the arts ought to be integrated throughout the curriculum or taught as a way to facilitate higher order thinking in another discipline. Is there any hope for reconciliation? There might be. If reconciliation is possible, altering the way in which arts educators generally, and aesthetic educators specifically, understand and use the term utilitarian is necessary. To begin the process of reconciliation I first offer a brief conceptual analysis of how the term has been used in arts education discourse. This analysis simultaneously reveals how the casting of the term by many arts educators has limited the scope of discussion about it in the arts.

In the late 1950s arts educators looked to aesthetics to further justify inclusion in the general public school curriculum. The attempt to justify the arts by emphasizing aesthetics in arts education meant undermining what scholars considered to be the previous theoretical underpinning. Utilitarian was the descriptive label of prior arts education justification given by arts educators espousing aesthetic education who sought to justify the arts as part of the general school curriculum on a new footing. The vocabulary used has had a particularly important role in framing the debate around aesthetic education. Scholars such as Elliot Eisner, Maxine Greene, Charles Leonhard, Robert House, Bennett Reimer, and Michael Mark (2) assert that arts education from the mid-twentieth century ought to have an emphasis on developing aesthetic experiences, aesthetic attitudes, and aesthetic responsiveness. They used vocabulary that cast the previous justification as inconsistent with what they saw as the principles and values of the arts. In their discourse on arts education, aesthetic doctrines were bifurcated with utilitarian ones.

Although it may be a false dichotomy, what is more problematic to me is how both terms have been used in the scholarship. In particular, and more important for this article, utilitanan is a term that has been disparaged to such an extent that one dare not say it in certain circles, especially among proponents of arts education. Because of the attempt to supplant so-called utilitarian justification with aesthetic education, the former term was looked upon with scorn, and in the field of arts education utilitanan is a term that has continued to be spurned. The purpose of this paper is not to give a definition of aesthetic education or identify the ways in which it is understood in arts education.

Instead, in the first part of this paper I elaborate on the ways in which views and explanations of "utilitarian" cloud the discourse of educators. The crux of the problem lies in the ways in which the terms utilitarian, utility, and utilitarianism are described, used, and understood to characterize how arts education has traditionally been justified in public education in the United States. I do not purport to have the definitive and final word on the topic of utilitarian views in relation to arts education, nor do I advance an ironclad definition of what "utilitarian" ought to mean. My task is much simpler. The first aim of this paper is to show how scholars have applied the term utilitarian in such a way that renders it problematic for readers and the field of arts education, and to intimate why it might have been applied this way. …

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