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Letting Art Teach Five Years After: A Reflection

Professor Gert Biesta reflects on how his book Letting Art Teach speaks to the current state of affairs potentially creating meaningful interruptions in arts education.

Photo of Prof. Gert Biesta by Kalle Kallio

Text: Gert Biesta

Letting Art Teach was originally published in 2017. While most of the writing of the book took place in 2016, it is the outcome of a much longer trajectory of observing, thinking, and writing. Rather than that I wrote the book in order to present a particular view about the arts and education, it is first and foremost a response to two worrying trends in the discussion about the arts in education.

Two problems: Instrumentalism and expressivism

One main trend I am responding to, is the ongoing instrumentalisation of the arts in education. This trend is visible in the many claims in which it is argued that education needs the arts because the arts are useful – which basically means that the arts are considered to be useful for something else. We can see this, for example, in the claim that music makes children better at mathematics or in the suggestion that drama emhances empathy. The problem with these kinds of justifications, however, is that they do not really care about the arts, but are only interested in what the arts supposedly can bring about. Such a justification is therefore quite vulnerable, because if quicker, cheaper, or more effective ways to produce the same ‘outcomes’ were found, the arts would go out of the window in no time.

The other main trend to which I am responding, is the suggestion that education needs the arts because the arts provide unique opportunities for students to express themselves. This is considered to be particularly important in a time in which there is a huge pressure on children and young people, but also on their teachers, to generate high test scores in a small number of curricular areas, thus narrowing the educational ‘diet’ rather than expanding it. While there is nothing wrong with providing students with opportunities to express themselves, the issue is that, from an educational point of view, expression is never enough. The simple reason for this lies in the fact that not everything that emerges from the student is automatically good or beneficial, neither for students themselves, nor for the world, natural, material, and social, in which such expressions are supposed to ‘arrive.’

In the book I refer to this state of affairs, with a little rhetorical exaggeration, as a ‘double disappearance’ of both the arts and education from arts education. And what I try to explore in the book is a way of understanding and ‘doing’ arts education that goes beyond the instrumentalisation of the arts in education and also goes beyond educational expressivism.

The existential concern of art and education

To go beyond instrumental justifications for the arts in education is not meant to suggest that art is pointless, but that the point of the arts is existential, not instrumental. By suggesting that the point of the arts is existential, I have in mind that art is an ongoing and never-ending exploration of the question what it means to exist as a human being, in the world and with the world, natural, material, and social. To go beyond educational expressivism, is not meant to suggest that education should suppress everything that comes from the student. It rather is meant to highlight that education always needs to bring in the difficult question about the ‘quality’ of what comes from the student – to ask, in other words, whether what students seek to express will help or hinder in living their lives, with others who put limits onto what we may want from them and may wish to do with them, and on a planet that also puts real limits onto what we may want from it or may wish to do with it. And this means that ultimately the point of education is existential as well, as it is not just about the knowledge we might acquire or the skills we might come to master, but how all this may or may not play a role in how we manage to live our lives well.

It is precisely here, in the fact that both the arts and education have an existential orientation and thus share a concern for the question as to what it might mean for human beings to exist in and with the world, that the arts and education meet or, with a slightly different image, that they cross each other’s path. Both share a concern, so we might say, for the existential challenge – which is a never-ending, never-resolved, truly life-long challenge – of ‘trying to be at home in the world,’ to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase, knowing, of course, that the world is precisely not our home but is, literally, ‘unheimlich.’

The existential challenge: Staying in the middle ground

In the book I try to give words to this existential challenge, for example, by describing our ‘worldly’ existence as an existence in the ‘difficult middle ground’ between ‘world-destruction’ and ‘self-destruction.’ ‘World-destruction’ has to do with the tendency to put oneself too much into the world, so to speak, thus running the risk that one destroys the very world, natural, material, and social, in which one seeks to arrive. ‘Self-destruction’ refers to the tendency to shy away from the difficulty of the world, to withdraw oneself from the encounter with the world, thus running the risk of destroying the very possibility for arriving in the world at all. These tendencies are always with us. And while we sometimes do have to push in order to make things happen, and sometimes do have to step back so as to make room for others, the existential challenge is never to push too hard nor to walk away completely but try to stay in the ‘middle ground,’ which is not always easy.

Interruption, suspension and sustenance

In the book I also highlight the particular qualities of the educational work that seeks to engage with the existential challenge of staying in the ‘middle ground.’ I argue that this work has an interruptive quality, particularly in order to make sure that children and young people can encounter the world in its full complexity, so to speak, or, to be even more precise: that they can encounter the world in its full reality and not just as a concept or idea. While sometimes the world, natural, material, and social, is in accord with our intentions and desires, it can also get in the way. This, however, should not be seen just as a negative experience, because such moments of interruption show us that the world, natural, material, and social, is real, and requires that we come to terms with it. Coming to terms with the reality of the world, which also means coming to terms with the reality of one’s own existence, one’s own possibilities and one’s own limitations, is a process that takes time. Hence I argue for the importance of the quality of suspension: education that slows down, gives time in order to try to figure out, again and again, what it might take to try to stay in the ‘middle ground.’ And given that dwelling in the middle ground may not always easy, education also needs to provide sustenance, the support and nourishment that makes it possible for students to stay with the difficulty – the difficulty of the world and the difficulty of themselves in the world, so to speak.

It is precisely here that education and the arts meet, because one could say that the qualities needed for education to engage with its existential task, are precisely the qualities the arts can offer. After all, (good) art interrupts – it poses questions, it makes us wonder, it makes us look again, at the world and at ourselves. After all, (good) arts slows down – it gives form to the ongoing exploration as of what it may mean to try to be at home in the world. And (good) art can provide sustenance for staying in the middle ground, it can provide the nourishment and support, and can even reveal the joy of trying to stay in the middle ground. Highlighting this is not to ‘rope in’ the arts, which would return the encounter between education and the arts to an instrumental relationship, but rather to make visible how the existential work of the arts coincides with the existential work of education, which means both that the work of the arts is educational if, that is, we understand education in existential terms, just as that the work of education is aesthetic in the fullest meaning of that word.

Encountering reality beyond learning

Perhaps the most central dimension in all this is the encounter with reality in its fullest sense – the reality of the natural world, of the material world, and of the social world and, through all this, also the reality of our own existence. One question I raise in the book is whether the world ‘out there’ should be seen as an object for our sense-making, for our learning, our mastery and control. Is it, in other words, that the ‘point’ of our existence is to bring the world ‘home?’ Sometimes this is entirely appropriate. Sometimes there is indeed a challenge to master the world, to understand the world, to bring the world into our own domain of sense-making, so to speak. But sometimes this is also entirely inappropriate.

The point I try to make in the book, is that the ‘gesture’ that goes from me to the world – a ‘gesture’ that turns the world into an object for me – is not the only way in which our relationship with the world exists. Even more so, the assumption that the world is an object for me has actually led to some of the major problems of our times. This includes the ecological crisis that has been caused by just seeing the world as a resource for our desires, and the democratic crisis that has emerged from the tendency to see others as objects of our desires, rather than subjects in their own right. In the book I also highlight how this ‘gesture’ has affected education, particularly by focusing education almost entirely on learning and students’ sense-making, for example through the application of ideas from constructivism, and seeing teaching as a rather outdated and, in a sense, unnecessary ‘gesture.’

The ambition of the book is to try to overcome this one-sidedness, in life, art and education, by suggesting that there is an entirely different ‘gesture’ that does not go from me to the world, but that actually goes from the world to me or, to be more precise, that comes from the world, natural, material, and social, to me.  Here we do not find questions about learning and understanding, but we encounter an entirely different set of questions, such as ‘What is this asking from me?,’ ‘What is this trying to say to me?,’ and ‘What is this trying to teach me?’ In the book I show that we encounter these questions much more prominently ‘outside’ of the domain of vision, that is, through smell, taste, and sound, and I explore, for example, how touching is first and foremost a matter of being touched and hence also of letting oneself be touched. In a sense, all this is familiar ground for the arts, and here again the arts have something to offer to education, not in order to produce particular educational ‘effects,’ but because the arts have, perhaps, not yet forgotten what has disappeared from so many educational settings nowadays.

Looking back

Looking back at the book almost 5 years after its inception, I would characterise it as a slow – one might even say: suspended – account of what is at stake in education that takes its existential orientation seriously. The book foregrounds a very particular question – the question ‘What is this asking from me?’ – which is there to highlight a ‘gesture’ that is the very opposite of all the education that always starts with the self and its desires. It is, in other words, a question that seeks to re-orient education back to the world, and in this regard the book can be read as a case for education that is ‘world-centred’ rather than student-centred or curriculum-centred. In all this is foregrounds teaching or, to be more precise, the experience of ‘being taught,’ that is, of being addressed by what comes to me, seeks to encounter me and, through this, calls upon me to ‘step’ into the world. We cannot deny that this address is there but we can, of course, close our eyes and ears for it, which means that the key question that remains is whether we let the world teach us, and whether we are willing to let art do its teacherly work in this realm.

After having written the book, I have come to realise that the questions are not just question of ‘pedagogy’ – that is, of the relational work between teachers and students – but also exists at the very heart of ‘didactics’ – that is, the ‘instructional’ work that goes on between teachers and students. After all, to try to understand, to acquire skills or, more concretely, to learn to play a musical instrument, to learn to dance, to recite, to sing, to paint, but also, to drive a car, ride a bike, do mathematics, and so on, is never a matter of just wanting something but is always about encountering realities to finding one’s way to come into a relationship with them. It is not, therefore, that ‘pedagogy’ and ‘didactics’ are separate domains; the existential question of pedagogy is at the heart of didactics, and in this regard the existential question is the educational question across the whole educational spectrum.

The final question is whether the book still speaks to the current state of affairs or whether, in the meantime, the concerns that encouraged me to write the book have been resolved or disappeared. From what I can see in the countries where I work, the instrumentalization of the arts in education is still ongoing and may actually have increased over the past years. Similarly, I keep encountering arguments for the importance of expression in education which seem to forget entirely that expression in itself can go in any direction, can be good or bad, and that the real task for education is to engage with that latter question rather than that education becomes a naïve celebration of all ‘talents’ and everything that students seek to express. In this regard I do think that the book still speaks to the current state of affairs and my hope is, of course, that it can create some meaningful interruptions in where arts education in many settings seems to be going.

Edinburgh, February 2021

Music Education AMP

The purpose of this blog is to serve as an amplifier for critical statements and openings for discussion in the field of music education. The blog publishes texts in Finnish, Swedish and English. The writers are students, teachers and researchers in the music education degree programme and MuTri doctoral school.

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