Hume's 'Of the Standard of Taste' and education and the arts

Authored by: John Gingell

The Routledge International Handbook of the Arts and Education

Print publication date:  November  2014
Online publication date:  November  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415839211
eBook ISBN: 9781315742717
Adobe ISBN: 9781317586951


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What are we trying to do when we teach the arts to our students? In some ways this seems a practical question which invites an answer from grand curriculum planning down to the humble lesson plan. However, on a more fundamental level it is a deeply theoretical question because it invites answers from our conceptions of the aims of education. Such aims should embody the fundamental purposes of education, i.e. what it is for; and as such they should determine the character of everything else within education: institutions, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment. But any discussion of educational aims must involve us in theoretical questions about values, the nature of our society, and the needs and capabilities of those being educated. Can we narrow the scope of this question down? When we teach students say, poetry, music or painting, what is our purpose in doing so? Are we attempting to produce the future practitioners of these things? In terms of our current practice the answer here seems to vary from art to art. Our teaching of painting and music seems aimed at practice; whilst our teaching of literature seems aimed at appreciation. I have written at length about this matter elsewhere (Gingell 2006) so will not pursue the matter further here. Perhaps, in introducing our students to the arts we are simply showing them aspects of our historical and contemporary culture? Again, there is an element of truth in such an answer but a mere descriptive exercise of enculturalisation would have little to recommend it. It would only begin to justify itself if these elements were worthwhile in some way. If they offered something of value both in themselves and for those being taught. But, perhaps, to think of arts education as a means of increasing the student’s knowledge of whatever sort is to look in the wrong direction? Maybe instead, we should look at it as engaging the student’s feelings. That our task here is an education of their sensibilities and not an education of their knowledge. Again, there is something in this. I suspect that, say, any teacher of literature whose students were not moved by the end of King Lear would think that something had gone wrong with their teaching. But, when the arts engage our emotions they do so in a very different way to, say, a picture of starving children and, surely, any arts education worth its salt would have to engage with this difference? Lastly, we come to the notion that arts education – like all other education – aims to widen and deepen the knowledge and understanding of those being educated. And, if we look at this notion carefully, we can see that this must be so. And it must be because if we examine the hints of justification offered above we can see that none of these could be possibly realised unless our students know and understand what they are being offered when they are taught the arts.

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