- Dewey’s Aesthetics and Today’s Moral Education
Today we face many new issues in terms of technology, political and economic relations, humanities, and ecological environment. In addition, these complex interests are shaped by responses to globalization and multiculturalism; and they are becoming more influential to individual lives. This kind of era requires understanding of and sensitivity to diverse needs, communication, and collaboration. Therefore, mere inculcation or transmission of knowledge has limitations in preparing students to live meaningfully in a changing world. Instead, students need embodied reasoning.
A meaningful and harmonious life coupled with responding to one’s environment is always a goal of education, in particular, moral education. In a new century, we need to rethink the fundamental meaning of morality and moral education. As a few recent researchers claim,1 obeying a society’s rules, laws, and regulations or possessing certain virtues such as knowledge does not necessarily make us moral; it may just rather cause us to benumb the virtuous consciousness.
In this view of moral education, we need to examine our current system of moral education. As a contemporary and systemic effort, character education dominates the field of practice in moral education. Philosophers and practitioners of character education convince themselves and their students that books on moral theory will tell us how we ought to behave. However, recent thinkers interested in moral education have argued about the effectiveness of character education. It could be argued that deficiencies in contemporary school-based moral education have led us down this path to narrowly cognitive, character trait, or general values list approaches. It should be also questioned whether it is possible to teach virtues directly and whether indoctrination as the method of such inculcation of virtues is an appropriate method of education.2 The overall problem is grounded in a misguided view of reason, following mind versus body dualism and neglecting the importance of aesthetic dimensions of experience. Consequently, moral reasoning has been regarded as consisting primarily of discerning the appropriate [End Page 62] universal moral principle that tells us the single “right thing to do” in a given situation. 3 Recent empirical research in the cognitive sciences has revealed this concept to be false; both our concepts and our reasoning about them are grounded in the nature of our bodily experience and are structured by various kinds of imaginative processes.
We need to provide students the opportunity—in time and space—to reason imaginatively and empathetically about how their various actions might alter their lives and affect the lives of others. For this, it is necessary to change our views of reason and meaning, grounded by a far deeper exploration into the qualities, feelings, emotions, and bodily processes that make aesthetic moral education possible. There is a rich tradition, culminating in the work of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, which gives pride of place to aesthetics.
Dewey insists that “arts are educative,” so that “they open the door to an expansion of meaning and to an enlarged capacity to experience the world.”4 This insight retains remarkable implications for today’s moral education. Aesthetic experience is holistic, taking us to a deeper understanding and more enjoyable appreciation and investigation of everything that goes into human meaning making, regardless of whether it is artistic or not. For Dewey, education needs aesthetic elements such as responsiveness, an emotional reaction supplying a delicacy and quickness of recognition, sensitiveness, and susceptibility. Dewey also states that the individual has a natural tendency to react in such an emotional way, but this natural disposition requires cultivation, and aesthetic experience affords the training of an emotional reaction and responsiveness. First, I will explore Dewey’s aesthetic theory in relation to moral education. Then, I will address what difference the characteristics inherent to aesthetic experience—feelings and emotions, imagination, and embodiment—make in moral education for a new century.
Dewey’s Aesthetic Theory
Dewey’s theory of art is the key to his entire philosophy, because his philosophy is “all that he meticulously worked on in the areas of logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology brought to culmination in his understanding of the aesthetic and art.”5 However, it has been only since the...