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The learnification, brainification and genetification of arts education – Losing sight of the arts?

Learnification causes us to lose sight of the “for whom” and “for what” of education.

We live in an era where science is heavily repositioning arts and arts education in society, perhaps without recognising the wider paradigmatic effects. Scientists are working towards identifying how arts education can be good for the child’s brain and useful for the learning of non-arts-related content and skills, such as mathematics and social interaction. While a strong focus on the benefits of the arts for various aspects of human development is welcomed by many, it also undermines some fundamental aspects of the arts. In particular, three ongoing processes that change the focus 1) from teaching to learning (what Gert Biesta has called learnification), 2) from learning to brain functions (what Michael Vandenbroeck has called brainification) and 3) from brain functions to genetic predispositions (what  Florianne Koechlin has called genetification) open deep and fundamental ethical issues that arts educators need to be aware of and engage with.

The move from teaching to learning reduces education to individual learning and skills, and in this way ignores some of the most central educational issues. Questions about purpose, content, and human relationships begin to disappear from the conversation and escape from educational practice too, argues Gert Biesta. Learnification causes us to lose sight of the “for whom” and “for what” of education. To push back against this trend, and to move from ‘learning’ back to ‘education’ requires us to start asking existential questions beyond learning and skills. We need to ask what the potential of the arts and arts education is in our relationship with the world; what it means to be in dialogue with the world, “what it means to exist as subject in and with the world”[1]

The second move from learning to brain functions focuses on what happens in the brain rather than the experience of learning. “Look at this brain-scan,” neuroscience tells us, “this is where your thinking, feeling, … actually takes place![2] This move demands the validity of experience to be measured against what is “really happening” in the brain. Human beings are reduced to brains that arts education is expected to change. This neuro-turn is so dominant in both professional and public discussions that “it is now difficult to look at children and early years policies outside of this dominant paradigm”[3], as de Vos argues in his recent analysis of the situation. In music education, in particular, advocacy increasingly relies on neuroscientific research for justification of its very existence.

The third move from brain functions towards genetic predispositions points to the process whereby biological research becomes a signifier for, and part of, a grand narrative that shapes a society. According to Steinberg’s critical work, this grand narrative dominates not only biology but also “politics, popular culture, political economy and everyday vernacular”[4]. A recent upsurge in research on the genetic basis of musical ability, a turn that deserves a close ethical consideration from arts educators, is one symptom of genetification. What is interesting today is the gene-music relationship, and finally we are able to scientifically point out and physically locate this genetic existence. It may not be long before the search is on for the genetic basis of artistic ability, dance skill and many other artistic practices. Whilst research can be done out of pure human curiosity, we have examples in history where the results of intellectual efforts are used for unethical purposes. The danger is that increasing genetification of music will create hierarchies between individuals, with the result that some individuals are excluded from music education on the basis of genetic test results in the name of more effective use of resources. Genetification diminishes awareness regarding the complexity of the arts, their multiple individual and social meanings, and leads to a reduction of focus.

The purpose of neuroscientific and genetic paradigms in the context of arts education are where political, ideological and existential questions need to be asked. If intelligence is rooted in brain functions and genetic determinants, and these relate to musical abilities, are we perhaps creating a picture of the “Uber-artist” in the future? For decades, we have already worked against reducing the purpose of the arts to narrow learning outcomes, or choosing students based on the results of musical ability tests. Now we can only wonder whether in the future there will be brain imaging and gene tests to guarantee that arts education is not wasted on those who will not, according to scientific evidence, become experts? And if expertise is the sole aim of arts education, what will that tell about our society?

Heidi Westerlund is the Principal Investigator of the ArtsEqual initiative and Sari Levänen & Albi Odendaal are researchers in the initiative.

[1] Biesta, G. (2017) Letting art teach. Art education ‘after’ Joseph Beuys. Utrecht: ArtEZ Press.

[2] De Vos, J. (2017). “The neuroturn in education: between the Scylla of psychologisation and the Charybdis of digitalization?”. In Vandenbroeck, M., Penn, H., De Vos, J., Mariett Olsson, L., & Fias, W. (eds) Constructions of neuroscience in early childhood education. Routledge.p. 30.

[3] ibid.

[4] Steinberg, D. L. (2016). Genes and the Bioimaginary : Science, Spectacle, Culture. Routledge. p. 1

Equally well

ArtsEqual tutkii, kuinka taide voi lisätä tasa-arvoa ja hyvinvointia ja miten se voisi olla kaikille kuuluva peruspalvelu. Mutta mitä kaikkea se tarkoittaa käytännössä? Tässä blogissa näytetään, mistä kaikesta ArtsEqual rakentuu.

ArtsEqual studies how art can increase equality and well-being, and how it could be a public service that belongs to all. But what kind of things does this mean in practice? This blog describes what ArtsEqual is all about. 


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