Schiller and Company, or How Habermas Incites Us to Play
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Schiller and Company, or How Habermas Incites Us to Play

Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794) are worth rereading today from the troubled fronts of politics and pedagogy.1 While the United States government stays stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the reason for war and its excesses is to defend democracy, and while economic and immigration crises follow from apparently reasonable analyses, we might remember Schiller’s concern about the French Revolution. France had run headstrong behind reason into a “barbarism” that toppled an existing state in order to establish the ideal state. Specters of that abstract and unfeeling reason have also driven our public schools to quantitative measurement of student achievement and to the elimination of opportunities to exercise the free play of imagination through arts. Public education, so earnestly bent on practical results that it squeezes out room and resources for play in favor of adding another math class or prep session, hopes to raise scores on standardized tests. Ironically for educators and tragically for children, the sacrifice of divergent creative play on the altar of convergent correctness has actually kept the scores down because the tests measure more than data retrieval. They also gauge students’ free thinking critical faculty, which depends on the exercise of imagination that Schiller called play. Schools are failing our children, in part at least, through indifference or excessive caution about creativity.

Surely the connection between the eroded room for political debate and a play-starved education is worth worrying about again if worry leads to ways beyond the crisis. Too often, academic essays offer analysis and critique but stop short of speculation about possible remedies, as if intellectual work excluded an element of play that explores what Schiller called imaginative “appearances” of alternative arrangements. In fact, academic essays that remain risk-averse miss the potential of the genre to “assay” or to try out ideas. I confess to a preference for the risk of possibilities and therefore invite you to consider joining Schiller and company. As advocates for an aesthetic education that promotes making art, not only appreciating it, we can promote the development of an innate [End Page 85] drive to play, the Spieltrieb or the playdrive, that Schiller identified as our creative faculty for turning conflict into beautiful works of art. Rereading Schiller in the company of other reformist educators, who directly or indirectly follow him, may offer a few unanticipated connections. But the spotty genealogy will be a very modest contribution to scholarship. My real purpose here, more practical than scholarly—and in the spirit of the Aesthetic Education itself—is to prime our urgent conversations with Schiller’s enduring, almost eerily contemporary, invitation to loosen up and to play.

Let’s Loosen Up

Our humanity depends on it, he was sure, because playfulness for Schiller is no frivolous pastime. Play is the instinct for freedom and for art, the drive that can harmonize man’s two other and mutually murderous instincts, transforming the conflict between passion, the Sinnestrieb, and reason, the Formtrieb, into aesthetic pleasure. Man is mortal flesh, driven by the material instinct that enslaves him to nature through the passions and holds him back in a savage state. He is also a timeless spirit that obeys the instinct of reason, which organizes the world into abstract, pitiless principles that can reduce human life to barbarity (Letter XX). Seriousness may address what is useful or moral, but only play engages the disinterested intensity that opens paths toward freedom (Letter XV). Other philosophers who looked on as France convulsed in revolutionary spasms turned anxiously to political events, where they assumed the “great destiny of man is to be played out” (Letter II, 223); and they considered competing designs of the state in order to determine which was most useful for constructing and preserving civilization. But Schiller mistrusted the cold scrutiny and bracketed the big political questions. Instead, he went to the heart of the matter and to the heart of man when he identified the political crisis as an abandonment of the imaginative arts and therefore of freedom: “Utility is the great idol of the time, to which all...