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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.2 (2003) 1-18
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Aesthetic Inquiry in Education:
Community,Transcendence, and the Meaning of Pedagogy
Hanan A. Alexander
What does it mean to understand education as an art, to conceive inquiry in education aesthetically, or to assess pedagogy artistically? Answers to these queries are often grounded in Deweyan instrumentalism, neo-Marxist critical theory, or postmodern skepticism that tend to fall prey to the paradoxes of radical relativism and extreme subjectivism. 1 This essay offers an alternative, communitarian account of education as an art and a neo-Kantian approach to aesthetic inquiry in education that avoids these difficulties.
I begin by examining the emergence of aesthetic inquiry in education in the context of the larger qualitative revolution in educational research. The struggle to justify the qualitative turn in educational thought was initially framed in terms of two influential doctrines: that cognition and affect on the one hand, and truth, beauty, and goodness on the other, can be clearly distinguished from one another. Qualitative methods were conceived as an alternative research paradigm — a new epistemology — in keeping with Thomas Kuhn's influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2 Qualitative research, on this account, is a cognitive endeavor aimed at discovering a form of knowledge no less valid and reliable than that produced by quantitative methodologies. This way of framing the discussion led to the dichotomizing of positivist and postpositivist epistemologies, one embracing absolutism, objectivism, and rationalism, the other relativism, subjectivism, and romanticism. 3 This approach succeeded in pointing to some serious flaws in the prevailing positivist account of social research, yet it left qualitative inquiry dependent on versions of epistemological relativism and subjectivism that philosophers of knowledge have shown to be self-contradictory and incoherent. 4 [End Page 1]
Conceiving of pedagogy in aesthetic terms challenges the prevailing positivist epistemology on a deeper level because it questions the accepted distinctions between thinking and feeling, and between truth, beauty, and goodness. If art can be conceived as a form of cognitive inquiry in addition to affective expression, then the appreciation and assessment of education as art requires not merely a new research paradigm or an alternative epistemology. Rather, it entails a reshuffling of our very conception of the relations between science, art, and ethics.
These concepts can be reconceived to avoid the paradoxes of radical relativism and extreme subjectivism if we recognize with Iris Murdoch that sovereignty belongs to communal conceptions of a transcendent good. Educational arts empower people to express, appreciate, and critique collective conceptions of goodness, and artistic criticism of pedagogy celebrates a sacred dimension in educational thought and practice. 5 This approach occasions a fresh look not only at the practice, appreciation, and assessment of pedagogy, but also at the very meaning of the concept of education and the sorts of inquiry that can fruitfully inform its practice.
Two Dogmas of Educational Research
Two dogmas have dominated educational research for most of this century: the idea that there exists a clear disjunction between the cognitive and affective domains; and the supposed radical independence from one another of truth, beauty, and goodness. 6 According to a popular view rooted in these doctrines, the search for truth is a cognitive affair governed by science, while ethics and the arts are tied to the emotions and the humanities. Inquiry into the former is objective — reliability depends on method not researcher — and into the latter, subjective — results can vary according to interpreter. In this attitude, the cognitive domain dominates the public arena through the influence and prestige of science and measurement. 7
Until the middle 1970s, behavioral and social research in education expressed these dichotomies in the distinction made between quantitative and qualitative research. The former was thought to be scientific and objective, the latter, humanistic and subjective. As qualitative inquiry came into its own in the 1980s, its proponents sought justification and legitimization in accord with cognitive dominance. 8 First, they argued that qualitative research methods had checks against error as rigorous as its quantitative counterparts. 9 Later, the cognitive domain...