- Beauty in the Age of Empire: Japan, Egypt, and the Global History of Aesthetic Education by Raja Adal
Raja Adal's Beauty in the Age of Empire: Japan, Egypt, and the Global History of Aesthetic Education is a historically grounded critique of aesthetic education provided in Japanese and Egyptian primary schools from the early 1870s to the early 1940s. It is drawn from what the author terms the "global archive" of curricula, textbooks, and educational manuals. Using these resources, Adal has endeavored to put a global group of educators in dialogue with one another to examine the similarities in the priorities of educators worldwide at the end of the nineteenth century and then to consider the independent responses to art education by the societies on the receiving end of Western expansion. This book presents an important transnational approach and highlights indirect connections that can be identified between Japan and Egypt during the period of modernization. Adal's approach is refreshing because it avoids the usual trope of an uncritical West-to-East transfer of knowledge, when, in reality, it has always been more complicated than that. Comparing Egypt and Japan gives insights into this complexity.
The importance of this book lies in Adal's commitment to write a global history that extends not from the West out toward its colonies but rather from the perspective of those nations seeking to define themselves in opposition to the West. To do this, he turns to aesthetic education, an often-neglected [End Page 232] aspect of nation building. "What happens," he asks, "if for a moment we allow wealth and military power to recede to a backdrop and bring aesthetics to the fore? In so doing, not only are we adopting a different perspective, but we are giving voice to a different set of historical actors" (pp. 15–16). This is the crux of Adal's study. By examining ways in which Japanese and Egyptian educational policymakers turned to music, writing, and drawing as tools for cultivating the sensibilities of the young and shaping their ideas of nationhood, he shows how countries threatened by the imperialist West turned to aesthetics as a form of resistance.
The first half of the book examines the educational trajectories of the subjects of art education in question. After an introduction to the importation of primary curricula from Western nations at the turn of the twentieth century, chapter 2 focuses on music education. By the end of the nineteenth century, educators in both Japan and Egypt had largely abandoned indigenous musical traditions in favor of Western music. In terms of curriculum, Japan incorporated music education from 1886, while Egyptian schools would lag behind by more than four decades, possibly a consequence of the less pervasive state control of education. By the late 1920s to 1930s, however, the situation was being re-evaluated and both countries began to turn to their indigenous traditions. Adal nonetheless highlights differences between their respective conceptions of traditional music: Japan celebrated local musical forms such as the courtly gagaku, its continued existence distinguishing Japan from other East Asian nations that witnessed the erasure of their ancient indigenous music, whereas Egyptian educators embraced a wider Arabic canon of "Eastern beauty." Yet the embrace of nativist traditions was highly significant in both countries. Late nineteenth-century philosophies of music posited musical sensibility as the most primal sensory experience of the individual. If music had such privileged access to hearts and minds, it followed that traditional forms of music had the power to cultivate not just humanist sensibilities, but nationalist ones. The intervention of music in the aesthetic economy surrounding children was thus a crucial tool of nation building. As Adal explains in a later chapter (the second "Interlude"), this, in turn, encouraged the adoption of national anthems. While anthems were colonial imports, they used patriotic lyrics to appropriate the emotional impact of rousing melodies for a national cause.
Chapter 3 explores the evolution of writing pedagogies...