On Aesthetic Education

In my attempt to understand the rise of New York as a “culture city,” I am focusing on the rise of Lincoln Center. There’s lots to investigate beyond the demolition and construction of buildings, as crucial as those are to the story. I’ve long known, for instance, that the Lincoln Center Institute–the educational arm of the complex, now a part of the wider umbrella known as Lincoln Center Education–demanded more of my attention. Even more enticing: starting in 1975, for nearly thirty years, the institute had a philosopher-in-residence, Maxine Greene.

Greene is very well-known in the field of education, an early and strong advocate for the inclusion of arts in education. (I would say she’s little known outside that field, and I’m not quite sure why, except for the fact that the study of education in the academy is shunted aside, without apparent irony.) Starting in the 1960s, Greene distinguished between training in the arts and what she called “aesthetic education.” For her, the more important—life-changing, society-changing—learning was that in imagination. The arts were ideally suited to expanding possibilities, enlarging vision, and promoting hope. She was a follower of John Dewey, grounded in pragmatism and phenomenology, and resistant to specific concrete meanings. In going through materials from her in the archives of Teachers College, where she was on faculty for all of her career, one of the most intriguing was a response to her mentor, asking for her endorsement of his latest book. She replied that she could not, “because of my built-in antipathy for cosmic viewpoints and far-ranging predictions,” which well sums up her ongoing belief in ever becoming.

At Lincoln Center Institute, her primary role was in the teaching of teachers in a summer session, first begun in 1976 and continuing today. Year after year, lecture after lecture, Greene comments on the performance they saw last night, the film they viewed in the seminar, the novel to be read. No lecture is exactly alike even as certain references are repeated often. It’s an impressive effort in promotion: championing the arts, giving significance to teaching, centering students as the wellspring of hope and possibility. On typescript after typescript, her indefatigable belief in others is palpable.

I was curious, then, to notice what might change from her lectures in the 1970s to those in the 1990s, and the most obvious is her attentiveness to multiple perspectives, particularly those of race, ethnicity, and gender. This was attended to directly in the 1990s, with the use of a novel by Toni Morrison or discussion of a performance by Urban Bush Women. That attention also played out against a changing attitude toward popular culture. In the 1970s and ‘80s, she articulated the need to distinguish between popular culture and fine arts, arguing for “disinterestedness” in examination for meaning that the fine arts encouraged. Popular culture, on the other hand, aroused an immediate and immersive satisfaction. By the 1990s, she softened this attitude some, recognizing the flow between the popular and fine arts could be beneficial to both and that students’ interests in expressiveness and aesthetics may often start in the popular. She did not shake her belief in the profundity of live performance and highly trained performers and calls to higher meaning, however. The experience of the arts, ultimately, was to know freedom—and this required the practice of attention, perception, and reflection. Teachers needed to pay attention to “situatedness; vantage point; the construction of meanings”–but all to the end of enacting freedom and knowingness, even if fleeting.