Notebook, 1993-

Return to - Notes for a Perspective on Art Education

Perspective - Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas - Schooling in Colonial America - The Invention of Common School Art - The Stream of Romantic Idealism in Art Education - 1890 to the First World War/Social Darwinism and the Quest for Beauty - Between the Wars/The Expressionist and Reconstructionist Streams in Art Education - Art Education from World War II to the Present

Notes from: Efland, Arthur. "Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas." In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education, eds. Soucy, Donald, and Mary Ann Stankiewicz, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1990.

Art Education in the Twentieth
Century: A History of Ideas

The Stream of Romantic Idealism in Art Education

Throughout the nineteenth century a stream of romantic idealism influenced educational theory and practice. In many ways it arose in reaction to the methods of mass public education associated with the common school. In the hands of Prussian Schoolmasters, Pestalozzi's pedagogical methods had acquired a Spartanlike stringency. New philosophies called these methods into question. The Kantian notion of mind as active process was embodied in Froebel's kindergarten. "Self-activity" in turn led to "self-expression" as a method for teaching the arts by the turn of the century. Ruskin's romantic ideas of artistic perception as a capacity for moral beauty also owed much to ideas rooted in the philosophy of German idealism that led to the romantic movement in literature and art.

Idealism entered American educational thought through two principal paths. One was through the New England transcendentalists, whose ideas were reflected in the theories and practices of Amos Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Peabody. The other was through William Torrey Harris's interpretation of Hegel. Indeed, it was Alcott's influence on the young Harris that had paved the way for his immersion in Hegelian philosophy.

Idealist thought was instrumental in transforming the arts from mere "ornamental" branches of "polite learning" to subjects richly imbued with moral purpose. As long as art was merely ornamental, it was a desirable but dispensable luxury, suitable primarily for the daughters of the wealthy. Once it was seen as a medium for raising the level of public morals, it was rooted in firmer soil. [p. 115]

The equating of art with high moral purpose originated in arguments first voiced in the writings of German idealist philosophers, and gradually these influenced the arts through the romantic movement. Romanticism radically altered the notion of mind from that of a passive receiver of random impressions to that of an active organizer of perception to make the world comprehensible. Mind was a power that could imaginatively reconstruct the world in alternative forms, creating beauty in art and heightening the sense of morality. In line with this idea, the arts came to be seen as sources of profound moral insights rather than mere ornamental accomplishments.

The idea that the mind could receive intuitive knowledge that transcended the limits of perception gave rise to New England transcendentalism. This movement contributed to the change in the intellectual status of women; since they were thought to have greater intuitive, or spiritual, insight than men, they were thought to be superior to men as moral guardians. As the moral purpose of general education rose in importance, teaching became a largely female occupation, though economic factors also contributed to its feminization.

The notion of the child had also changed. Previously children had been seen either as creatures born in sin or as untamed animals in need of civilization by training. As romantic idealism gained ground, children became perceived as creatures with innate divinity, innocent at birth but subject to corruption by evil. Alcott's Temple School was an abortive attempt to base instruction upon idealist views of transcendental principles.

Froebel's view of the mind as self-activity was the basis for an educational innovation, the kindergarten. His organization of instructional materials in the gifts and occupations yielded activities to stimulate the mind's growth, eventually transforming art education from servile exercises in drawing to activities rich in a variety of manipulative media. Of equal importance was the fact that imagination and self-activity foreshadowed the movement toward self-expression in the twentieth century.

Being largely women, the supporters of kindergarten education lacked the social power to modify the schools in a humane direction. Instead, the movement sometimes had to compromise, espousing the values of vocationalism and industrial art education, values then championed by men in social power, in spite of the fact that such values had little to do with Froebel.

Harris's Hegelian idealism provided a profoundly conservative argument for art, music, and literature in general education as sources of moral teaching and as defenders of social institutions.

There were marked differences between the art training received by girls and boys. Common school art, with its rational emphasis based in geometric structure, can be characterized as masculine art education. Feminine art education, by contrast, tended to promote the teaching of art as high culture. This occurred in private schools for women, infiltrating the public schools as these women became teachers.

As they came under the domination of middle class, public schools began to emulate private preparatory institutions. This tended to accelerate the introduction of art teaching into the curricula of secondary institutions.

Ruskin's work in supporting the Art for Schools Association in England provided an example for similar activities in America. However, his most important and lasting contribution was his pioneering of a totally new direction for art education, one wedded to the rules of neither art academies nor industrial design; rather, he situated it within the liberal arts. Ruskin's legacy lives today in the fact that most colleges offer some form of art appreciation in their basic curricula. [pp. 146-147]


[Notes from: Efland, Arthur. "Art Education in the Twentieth Century: A History of Ideas." In Framing the Past: Essays on Art Education, eds. Soucy, Donald, and Mary Ann Stankiewicz, Reston, Virginia: National Art Education Association, 1990.]



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