Is the casting of utilitarian as discordant with arts education philosophy justified?

Author:Kopkas, Jeremy


The term "utilitarian" has a negative connotation in arts education, especially among those who justify the arts' inclusion in the general curriculum as aesthetic education. Those who support the notion that the arts are valuable in the general curriculum say it is so because of the arts' connection to aesthetics. Supporters of aesthetic education assert that the arts promote uniquely artistic ideals instead of mere utilitarian goals. That is, the arts are not a handmaiden for the promotion of extra-artistic ends. This particular view of the term utilitanan has led to arguments in the field resulting in persistent partisan divisions. One group sees the arts as something distinctive, separate, and worthy of study for its own sake, while another believes the arts ought to be integrated throughout the curriculum or taught as a way to facilitate higher order thinking in another discipline. Is there any hope for reconciliation? There might be. If reconciliation is possible, altering the way in which arts educators generally, and aesthetic educators specifically, understand and use the term utilitarian is necessary. To begin the process of reconciliation I first offer a brief conceptual analysis of how the term has been used in arts education discourse. This analysis simultaneously reveals how the casting of the term by many arts educators has limited the scope of discussion about it in the arts.

In the late 1950s arts educators looked to aesthetics to further justify inclusion in the general public school curriculum. The attempt to justify the arts by emphasizing aesthetics in arts education meant undermining what scholars considered to be the previous theoretical underpinning. Utilitarian was the descriptive label of prior arts education justification given by arts educators espousing aesthetic education who sought to justify the arts as part of the general school curriculum on a new footing. The vocabulary used has had a particularly important role in framing the debate around aesthetic education. Scholars such as Elliot Eisner, Maxine Greene, Charles Leonhard, Robert House, Bennett Reimer, and Michael Mark (2) assert that arts education from the mid-twentieth century ought to have an emphasis on developing aesthetic experiences, aesthetic attitudes, and aesthetic responsiveness. They used vocabulary that cast the previous justification as inconsistent with what they saw as the principles and values of the arts. In their discourse on arts education, aesthetic doctrines were bifurcated with utilitarian ones.

Although it may be a false dichotomy, what is more problematic to me is how both terms have been used in the scholarship. In particular, and more important for this article, utilitanan is a term that has been disparaged to such an extent that one dare not say it in certain circles, especially among proponents of arts education. Because of the attempt to supplant so-called utilitarian justification with aesthetic education, the former term was looked upon with scorn, and in the field of arts education utilitanan is a term that has continued to be spurned. The purpose of this paper is not to give a definition of aesthetic education or identify the ways in which it is understood in arts education.

Instead, in the first part of this paper I elaborate on the ways in which views and explanations of "utilitarian" cloud the discourse of educators. The crux of the problem lies in the ways in which the terms utilitarian, utility, and utilitarianism are described, used, and understood to characterize how arts education has traditionally been justified in public education in the United States. I do not purport to have the definitive and final word on the topic of utilitarian views in relation to arts education, nor do I advance an ironclad definition of what "utilitarian" ought to mean. My task is much simpler. The first aim of this paper is to show how scholars have applied the term utilitarian in such a way that renders it problematic for readers and the field of arts education, and to intimate why it might have been applied this way. Concurrent with and following the overview of the literature is an analysis of the term's use. Finally, I suggest, very briefly, that there may be hope for recasting the term "utilitarian" in arts education in a new and perhaps unexpected light.

How Is Utilitarian Used in the Literature?

As applied to education generally, the term "utilitarian" has been explained as having to do with practical matters and social usefulness. There is an emphasis on useful ends determined primarily by an industrialized market-based economy For example, Herbert Kliebard, writing about education during the progressive era, asserts that

... modern foreign languages were more useful than classical ones, and subjects like surveying and navigation needed a place alongside masterpieces of literature and formal grammar. Modest successes were achieved here and there in changing the curriculum along utilitarian lines. In the nineteenth century, the academy, a popular ... form of secondary education that included practical subjects, became the dominant form of secondary education in the country. (3) Not too far removed from the same period of time mentioned in Kliebard's work, noted music educator Will Earhart lamented that

... shall we continue to believe that utilitarian thought and labor, if only spurred more feverishly so as to produce more tonnage, will bring about the millennium it so long has promised? Do we not know that self-interest breeds self-interest, that utilitarianism breeds utilitarianism, even as war breeds war? (4) Also focusing on the same period of time, the music education philosopher Reimer argues that during the progressive education movement "social and recreational activities became an important part of schooling, as did vocational and utilitarian training." (5) Furthermore, music education historian Mark argues in "The Evolution of Music Education Philosophy from Utilitarian to Aesthetic" that "Basic Concepts was the philosophical culmination, in the United States at least, of thousands of years of utilitarian philosophy. Several authors discussed music education philosophy in utilitarian terms." (6) At least since the progressive era the term utilitarian (in both general education and music education) is connected with socially and economically practical interests. It is during this era and later into the century that some in arts education connote the term as anathema to the goals and values of the arts.

Eisner is one prominent example of an arts educator who applies an unfavorable emotive meaning to "utilitarian." In espousing the aesthetic dimension in arts education, he criticizes the utilitarian perspective as something that causes students to miss out on or not fully understand the aesthetic experience. For him an aesthetic attitude "frees them from the unrelenting demands of practicality." (7) Gail Burnaford, Arnold Aprill, and Cynthia Weiss also disparage so-called utilitarian approaches to arts education. Pushing the sentiments of Eisner further, they argue that

... using arts activities, such as graphic organizers or movement activities, no matter how charming or useful, is not the same thing as seriously engaging in the process of art. When a utilitarian approach is taken, the other academic areas are often given short shrift as well. Yes, music uses half notes and quarter notes, but pointing out the existence of fractions in music doesn't make a lesson meaningful math instruction. (8) The casting of aesthetics in a positive light while applying an unfavorable emotive meaning to "utilitarian" is seen, again, in Mark's work. He speaks of the movement toward aesthetic education, specifically music education as aesthetic education, as something that is liberating arts education from the rigid views of social efficiency experts and administrative progressives. In doing so, Mark claims aesthetic education invited "much deeper introspection" than did the preceding utilitarian justification. (9) In reference to utilitarian notions of education he goes on to assert that "policymakers lost sight of the fact that such skills are simply tools that open the gate to education, they are not an education in themselves." (10)

Leann Logsdon also echoes these sentiments by asserting that utilitarian goals are more extreme than instrumental ones because the discourse among arts advocates "is shifting in an explicitly utilitarian direction, with arts education increasingly placed in the service of realizing material economic goals." (11) use the term in much the same way. (12)

These are just a few examples that show, in varying degrees, the term utilitarian as having a negative connotation. For these arts educators and scholars the utilitarian is a view that places the arts in a subservient position for the assistance they may provide to extra-artistic and practical human endeavors. These endeavors range from purporting to help students improve in mathematics to developing productive citizens. (13) Simply put, the utilitarian is incompatible with what arts advocates say the arts are supposed to teach; at best it assumes the arts only have instrumental value. Philosophically speaking, these scholars appear to have imposed their reaction to the term for the purpose of eliciting an emotional appeal, which has resulted in a view of utilitarian that deviates from a mere description.

Why Has Utilitarian Been Used This Way?

The emotive meaning applied by arts educators to the term is important because this unfavorable connotation of its meaning, as argued by Wittgenstein in his later work Philosophical Investigations, has come about through its use, its ostensive definition. (14) Arts educators have made attempts to demonstrate the meaning of utility by coupling it with extra-artistic and practical endeavors. These ostensive descriptions are problematic in two ways. First...

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