Appreciating greatness

The Educational Imperative
August 11, 1995

The relationship Peter Abbs makes between Socratic and aesthetic learning is not easy to grasp at first, nor at times is his use of philosophical words. But the passages describing the creative process, his experience of teaching PGCE students, and his appreciation of the influence Herbert Read, Peter Fuller and David Holbrook have had on him, make his theoretical language more human.

Abbs clearly finds himself in the predicament which many of us have felt deeply about but had neither the energy nor the intellect to articulate. He minds passionately about what he describes as "the current take-over of education by a handful of politicians and a leaden medley of managers and bureaucrats" who share, for entirely different and ill-conceived reasons, his antagonism to the "progressive and liberal" doctrines of educationists in the 1960s and 1970s with their emphasis on self-expression and child-centred education. These he feels have done immeasurable harm in separating the individual pupils from the inherited cultural forms of creation and enquiry; "real teaching seeks an encounter between the two".

However, Abbs firmly believes that the nature of aesthetic experience is as valid as rational thought as a form of knowledge. He takes us back to Aristotle's Poetics, and in our own century to Susanne Langer's Feeling and Form, to emphasise the long-established concept of the arts as an essentially generic community of human activity gained mainly through direct personal involvement. While the generally recognised forms of art - visual art, literature, music, drama (including theatre), dance and film - are autonomous and different, each needs to be pursued primarily for its aesthetic experience and in relation to its own particular history within the inherited culture. The pursuit of "educational drama" by enthusiasts, who had deliberately excluded any study of traditional theatre in order to enhance the child- centred and self-creative aspects of their work, has been largely responsible for drama being excluded from the national curriculum as a subject in its own right. In English, too, concentration on themes thought more accessible to the average child has resulted in many children being deprived of any real involvement in the structure, forms and appreciation of great literature.

Peter Cox is the founder principal of Dartington College of Arts.

The Educational Imperative: A Defence of Socratic and Aesthetic Learning

Author - Peter Abbs
ISBN - 0 7507 0332 6 and 0333 4
Publisher - The Falmer Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.50
Pages - 250

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