- The Educational Imperative: A Defense of Socratic and Aesthetic Learning
O tempora! o mores! Peter Abbs begins by deploring “the cultural catastrophe” of British education in the mid-1990s. He states in his always lucid and accessible prose: “I want to come clean; I want to place the general argument of the book in the current arena of public debate, and to do so without apology and without equivocation.” He bemoans today’s massive denial of spiritual energy, of intellectual enquiry, of aesthetic beauty and public virtue. In a better world, he says, education would serve, “willingly and lovingly . . . the transcendent ends” of culture and society. Abbs decisively rejects the “Cato” model where teachers are unquestioning skill-based technicians who employ [End Page 393] “managerial” language. Instead, he advocates a Socratic view, which is “to reaffirm that education should be primarily concerned with critical reflection, with personal development and with the sustained enquiry into the various forms of meaning.”
Subsequent chapters apply this approach to the arts curriculum. Its failure to gain proper recognition and the absurd and continued conflation of Dance and Physical Education are indicted. Abbs convincingly attacks the notion of “self-expression” in art and language long upheld by educationalists. Its application at the expense of reason, abstract thinking, and the study of “the truly significant writers through the centuries” has in his view helped to trivialize and to marginalize the arts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in so-called “educational drama.” For three generations it has denied “the aesthetic field of drama, the symbolic field of its own form,” and has elevated one genre, improvisation, and made it the totality.
Abbs is committed to reconciling “the creative energies of the individual and the creative energies of the culture.” Who would argue with that? And who could deny the value of critical reflection or indeed public virtue? He declares, rather ponderously: “The vested interests of Coca-Cola manufacturers or political missionaries have to be seen as too ‘recent and relevant’ to be allowed” to shape education. The Abbs academy requires “a formally protected place, an institutional space more like the theatre than Tesco [a supermarket chain], more like the cathedral than the Stock Exchange.” For all this patent seriousness and sincerity, here is an educationalist irrevocably and irreconcilably out of joint with the present. The austere modernism of Herbert Read profoundly influenced Abbs in his teens; he also admires F. R. Leavis, Richard Hoggart, and David Holbrook, whose writing at its most influential spans the 1930s and the 1960s. Abbs’s most recent source of inspiration is the art critic Peter Fuller, whose abiding legacy was a romantic nationalism that eloquently celebrated an “essentially symbolic and figurative” tradition in British art from J. M. W. Turner to Henry Moore.
Modern Painters, which Fuller edited, could afford to eschew popular culture and its connections with “higher” arts. Fine for a periodical, but how could such a fastidious approach be applied to the classroom experience? Abbs describes an experiment that he performed on student-teachers at the University of Sussex to understand their aesthetic responses. Among the events and objects that the students were asked to consider were John Constable’s The Haywain, Richard Strauss’s The Four Last Songs, a visit to Claude Monet’s garden and a performance of Coriolanus. Abbs’s list does not, however, contain Pulp Fiction, a Courtney Love concert, or an S. E. Hinton novel. What place, if any, do the latter have in the arts curriculum? Must they be ruled out for being too “recent and relevant”? Can student responses to them be brought to bear on their comprehension of higher culture? Or is there a great and ultimately irreconcilable divide? Abbs never faces these issues and instead, in his fogyish [End Page 394] coda, denounces once more “the consumer society” which has “trivialized on an unprecedented scale” and has “tarnished whatever it has touched.”