Kids Dress Warm!
18/10/2018 | By Michael Wimmer. This blog reflects the personal views of the author.
Reflections on the disputed territory between the return of grading and being held back on the one hand and the occupation with art as a form of the system liberating personality formation on the other.
Recently Heinz Fassmann, the Minister of Education of the ruling conservative/right-wing coalition, has launched another “school package”. It sees itself as a deliberate attempt to counteract the liberal and artistically motivated tendencies of current school developments. The planned measures are particularly concerned with the Neue Mittelschule (New Secondary School), which would be closed immediately. Once again the pupils will be taught in various performance groups. However, the reintroduction of grading for the second form of primary school onwards as well as the return of grade retention have garnered public backlash.
Many leading education specialists have spoken out against these new developments which, in their view, are regressive and reminiscent of policies from the 1950s. However it is quite obvious that those in charge care little about the scientific consensus whatsoever; Heinz Fassmann himself makes it clear that the decisions he makes are almost entirely politically motivated. As such, they do not require any empirical basis.
And so we are suddenly confronted with the constraints of an established scientist (Fassmann is an applied geographer and spatial researcher) who has declared himself willing to play along with the current federal government’s political project of social disintegration and inequality. Stefan Hopmann sums it up in a Ö1 interview on the re-erection of “social dividing walls” and Karl Heinz Gruber in his standard commentary “Endlich wieder Sitzenbleiben”, (continually being held back) the school is no longer a place where with fair and differentiated pedagogical judgment solidarity and empathy are taught and promoted; rather, the school will become a learning institution with clear prerequisites, strict rules and harsh sanctions.
School as a “Factory”
It was Andreas Schleicher, the international coordinator of PISA, who dared to question what makes a school good from the perspective of students in a detailed interview in the Kurier with regards to current education policies. It is not surprising that negative sanctions such as grades or grade retention do not feature in his answers. Rather, he is concerned with advanced education systems whose institutions consider it their primary task to find out how pupils learn and what school can do to support them. In stark contrast to these ideas, those in charge would have schools act as “factories” in which schoolgirls and boys would be treated like objects to be processed in the hope of being able to compare and evaluate them in the simplest possible way and, if need be, to eliminate them as “unsatisfactory” via grading. Consequently, he counteracts the threat of early sitting with the demand “to provide the best teachers for the most difficult classes and to win the best headmistresses for the most difficult schools”.
I was particularly interested in his finding that the school system would continue to be negotiated as an “industrial educational model”. In this model, both teachers and pupils would appear to be largely interchangeable. In view of the prevailing systemic constraints, teachers would only be trusted to follow prefabricated plans, depriving them of any self-efficacy: “As if one were oneself a (note-giving) machine. One fulfils one’s function, but does not act as a designer”. On the contrary, he tells of successful school systems that are about to abandon the idea of industrial mass production and instead think about what functions they might have in the post-industrial age.
Art as a promise of freedom to shape the continually revised idea of comprehensive personal development.
What interests me in this context is the alternative to the school system of the Industrial Era at the end of the 19th century and its compulsions to prepare pupils for the respective labour market needs. Since then, the label “Reform Pedagogy” has been used to denote the alternative ideology that schools should not be narrowed down to spaces for vocational training. Schleicher saw school less and less as a “factory” for a new generation of people working in an industrial structure, but rather as a space where the comprehensive personal development of a new generation of different individuals could be realized. Now the founders of reform pedagogy were probably already aware that broad-based personal development is a highly fragile ideological construct that would be difficult to grasp with the constraints of restrictive educational policy measures.
What they did know, however, was that a unilateral adjustment to the prevailing requirements of the time (the government state, the industrial system, etc.) would not lead to a meaningful life in a society that would become unmanageably complex after finishing school. Accordingly, they attached importance not only to imparting certain levels of knowledge or related skills to students, but also to imparting personality traits.
While school has long been oriented towards funnelling content (knowledge) that can be grasped cognitively, today it could be argued that this task has become largely obsolete in view of the lack of prognostic drafts of future social constitution. At least in comparison to school there are now much more accurate sources of information, which provide all who are interested with the tailor-made knowledge he or she needs to deal with his or her respective problems.
The radical answer to the universal availability of “knowledge” would then not be the memory of an apparently better past in which pupils could still be sorted according to their knowledge acquisition (as Fassmann and his political followers would suggest), but rather the simple explanation that the concept of school as the “central institution of knowledge acquisition” has become largely obsolete. Wikipedia, Youtube and other providers have now taken on this job in a much more attractive way.
Teaching with “head, heart and hand”
It would be worthwhile for schools to orient themselves once again to the intentions of reform pedagogy, the proponents of which tried more than a hundred years ago to resist the cultural hegemony of industrialism. They did not want to limit themselves to what Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi titled the “head”. The legendary Swiss pedagogue spoke in favour of teaching “with head, heart and hand” in the 18th century, and thus against the teaching of cognitively negotiable knowledge, instead integrating heart and hand equally into school teaching practice.
And so it is no coincidence that, in addition to the traditional acquisition of knowledge, “reform schools” in particular have paid very special attention to the facilitation of sensual experiences and the development of socio-political attitudes. From this point on, the emotional disposition of the learner was explicitly addressed, which – whether we like it or not – has had a lasting influence on every form of knowledge acquisition. A particularly impressive example for me is a school founded by the Viennese salon lady Eugenie Schwarzwald, which artistic avant-gardists such as Adolf Loos, Arnold Schönberg, Oskar Kokoschka and Matthias Hauer frequented in order to familiarise young women in particular with the avant-gardists’ aesthetic demands (see the wonderful biography of Deborah Holmes “Boredom is Poison“).
It is fitting that I have recently taken up the volume “Ästhetische Empfindungen” by Konrad Paul Liessmann for a second time. He once again made it clear to me what a central position the perception of aesthetic phenomena occupies in the development of an individual’s personality, and with it the ability to learn to deal with aesthetic stimuli. For a long time school has insisted on keeping the proliferating field of aesthetic perception (and thus the entire emotional capacity of the learners) outside its walls and, at best, on giving privileged groups access to musical or visual-artistic phenomena within the framework of musical education or visual education. As if students should leave their sensory and artistic selves at home, exclude them from the school’s teaching practice, in order to maintain a disastrous inequality between knowledge-acquiring subjects and an array of other themes offering an equally sensual as well as meaningful methodology for coping with life.
It was clear to me during the reading that the “world” in a purely cognitive way seems no longer sufficiently perceptible, more like a promise that must necessarily lead one astray (this is all the more true as any cognitively mediated knowledge of “world” appears to be largely arbitrary so long as relevant findings do not experience anything in the form sensual touch). Instead, Liessmann demands the development of imagination, which is not only able to experience the world in its complexity but also actively influences it within the framework of human independence and self-development and helps shape it as the key to another life. Works of art are phenomena that contradict themselves through their appearance. So it is not enough to perceive, see, or hear them, you have to understand them.
Works of art are phenomena that contradict themselves in appearance. So it is not enough to perceive, see or hear them, you have to understand them.
In this context, it seems striking to me that we are not talking about anything new here. After all, the significance of the aesthetic dimension of comprehensive personality formation is already inscribed at the beginning of the Enlightenment. It was Emmanuel Kant who gave equal importance to questions of theoretical and practical reason and to those of judgement, the execution of which he negotiated primarily along aesthetic lines. Obviously, as a result of considerable social forces, it was necessary to be able to dispense with the formation of aesthetically competent people (and thus in the full, also sensually-physically capable sense of being able to judge) in order to be able to fob them off with the crumbs of knowledge that could be repeated in examinations (and thus pressed into notes).
In this context, Liessmann points to art in comparison to other everyday perceptions, which admittedly allow a very free association with the current double figure of Heinz Fassmann as a scientist and as a politician: “In the midst of the world of stimuli that flood our senses, there are “phenomena” that we perceive in a quite excellent sense. They are not things that simply exist and are noticed; nor are they things and situations that make us linger because they irritate us.” He quotes Martin Seel: “What appears is not what it pretends to be. The actor is not Hamlet, and Hamlet is not an actor: Aesthetic appearance consists of appearances that can be perceived and welcomed in a transparent contradiction to the actual being of objects.
At this point, we do not want to examine in detail the similarities that Fassmann and Hamlet have in common. Much more decisive in this context are our abilities as perceivers to experience the perception of appearances as contradictions – and to make them productive in a comprehensive sense in the process of understanding. In relation to this specific constellation, which distinguishes Austrian educational policy in the person of Heinz Fassmann in a special way, aesthetics – increasingly limited politically to the engagement of a self-referential elite with selected artistic phenomena – thus mutate into a general theory of perception, which – so I suspect – in view of the current contradictory social developments has never been so relevant for the further development of school education as it is today.
The school of the future will be aesthetic – or it will have no future.
The theoretical justifications for the central examination of artistic phenomena in schools have never been as justified as they are today (see, for example, Jörg Zirfas: “Die Sinne, die Künste und die Bildung“). Perhaps even more decisive today are the arguments that can help to justify a contemporary school founded on experiences in the artistic field (see the doyen of the US Arts Education movement “What Can Education Can Learn from the Arts about the Practice of Education“). Each of the points Eisner makes detracts from Fassmann and his political entourage with arguments that are as simple as they are convincing. The proponents of a “school of yesterday” who have just come to power could also have simply borrowed from school developers such as Wolfgang Kerschensteiner, who already drew up his school using one-sided industrial requirements at the beginning of the 20th century determining the concept of “work school“.
If Kant has ascribed the quality of “expediency without purpose” to art, then any suspicion of scholastic preoccupation with artistic phenomena falters in the wake of the growing, demonstrable usefulness of any scholastic effort. Instead, art is the controversial ability to transcend systematic constraints through expression of individual freedom, however tightly drawn. Thus art lends expression to what – for whatever reason – is not yet realized and represents a learning space of possibilities eager to be filled with educational content.
If today the scholastic preoccupation with the manifold forms of artistic expression still stands at the outer edge of any school development, this could soon prove to be one of the central reasons that something like school in the age of accessible knowledge is still necessary.
Then as now: cognition, ethics and aesthetics (thus the ability to think, act and judge) as the three crucial components for a contemporary school
The European Union already set a benchmark for this in 2006 with its justification of key competences for lifelong learning; this made clear that the traditional school’s claim to one-sided cognitively comprehensible knowledge acquisition (and the associated comparative standards, vulgo “grades”) has come to an end. Instead, an alternative has once again arisen which is inherent in all humanistic thinking and which refers to an irreversible interaction of purely cognitive, ethical and aesthetic dimensions in the comprehensive development of personality. According to this claim, the (cognitive) acquisition of knowledge, (political) attitude and (aesthetic) judgement are inseparably related to each other and are inextricably linked.
To this day, schools do not take this fundamental insight into account in any way; further, the current federal government, in its efforts to achieve small political change, is anxious to once again fundamentally question attempts at integrative school development – disregarding all scientific findings.
School is a historical phenomenon. It came into the world in a specific historical constellation; it can therefore step out of this constellation again. Fassmann and Co. probably unintentionally made this clear with their latest school package. On the way to realizing their Retrotopia, they might still be surprised to meet all those avant-gardists of school development who, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, have stood up for school as a place of comprehensive personality development that is aware of the individual significance of aesthetic and sensual perception and does not want to be limited to the compulsive comparison along imposed numerical criteria owed above all to the simplicity of the decision-makers.