John Dewey on music education as experience

If I’m going to understand progressive philosophies of education, then I need to understand John Dewey. So here we go.

John Dewey

Dewey is a progressive hero. He was a supporter of women’s suffrage, a founding member of the NAACP, and was ahead of his time on the importance of multiculturalism. Contrary to what I had always assumed, he did not invent the Dewey Decimal System. Given that I’m reading about him in the context of music education, it was amusing to learn that he had congenital amusia. Finally, a fun autobiographical fact: I attended a very fancy school modeled on Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.

Before we get to Dewey’s thoughts on art and education, here are some of his key political stances, as explained by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Classical liberals think of the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals. Social and political life are the arena in which individuals engage in the competitive pursuit of self-interest, preferably with minimal interference from the government. Dewey preferred to think of individuals as parts of a bigger organism, dependent on our relationships with each other  for our survival and well-being. In Dewey’s model, freedom isn’t just the absence of constraints, but rather the positive fact of participation in an ethical social order.

Dewey valued democracy not just as a form of government, but as a defining property of good social relationships, in industrial and civil as well as political contexts. People can’t be free if they’re educated to be docile or passive. Students should be able to make and do things, and to be critically reflective while doing so.We can create a democratic society through democratic education. That doesn’t mean sending students on a quest for certainty; it means leading them through inquiry, the process of solving problems (or trying to.) Inquiry is communal, not just individual.

Like all good Marxists, Dewey can be Pollyannaish at times. From Art As Experience:

Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non-communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques (350).

This implies that if we could just overcome our differences, everybody would get along. I guess Dewey wasn’t hip to the idea of the monkeysphere.

Okay, so that’s politics. Moving on to art, here are some key points from the Stanford Encyclopedia on Dewey’s aesthetics.

In Dewey’s model, art isn’t a thing, it’s an experience (though a thing might be the catalyst for the experience.) The work of art isn’t so much the painting or string quartet as it is the experience of the painting or string quartet. That experience depends completely on the social context both of the work’s creation and of its audience. We shouldn’t ask, “what is art?” but rather “when is art?”

Dewey took a radically broad-minded idea of what should count as legitimate art: crafts and ornaments from traditional societies, African-American art and music, comic strips and movies. (I was going to qualify that sentence with “broad-minded for his time” but he’s progressive by modern standards too.)

Dewey saw art not as something existing separately from everyday life, but as existing on a continuum with mundane pleasures. The difference between me appreciating the sound of kids playing basketball across the street and me appreciating a Beethoven symphony is a matter of degree, not kind. Also, the Beethoven symphony doesn’t have any kind of transcendent beauty and value in and of itself; it emerges out of a social and cultural context. The Stanford Encyclopedia:

Dewey then argues that we must begin with the aesthetic “in the raw” in order to understand the aesthetic “refined.” To do this we must turn to the events and scenes that interest the man-in-the-street such as the sounds and sights of rushing fire-engines, the grace of a baseball player, and the satisfactions of a housewife. We find then that the aesthetic begins in happy absorption in activity, for example in our fascination with a fire in a hearth as we poke it. Similarly, Dewey holds that an intelligent mechanic who does his work with care is “artistically engaged.” If his product is not aesthetically appealing this probably has more to do with market conditions that encourage low-quality work than with his abilities.

So, Dewey equates aesthetic experience with flow. That makes sense! In traditional cultures, practices like dance and sculpture are enhancements of everyday life, not attempts to escape from it. Institutions like museums and concert halls are symptomatic of Western civilization’s Cartesian dualism, our effort to separate the grubby physical world from the purity and refinement of the spiritual/aesthetic/divine. Those institutions have their social and political context too.

The segregation of art from everyday life came with the rise of nationalism and imperialism. The Louvre began as a place to house Napoleon’s loot. The rise of capitalism, with its valuation of rare and costly objects, also contributed to the development of the museum, as did the need to show good taste in an increasingly materialist world.

In his book Ten Little Title Tunes, Philip Tagg argues that the idea of “absolute music” is similarly an artifact of Western Europe under mercantile capitalism. That’s a future blog post.

So what makes for satisfying aesthetic experiences? How do we maximize flow? Dewey thinks that optimal aesthetic flow comes from a drama with a climactic resolution, a loss of equilibrium followed by its reestablishment. This is a rare bit of Eurocentrism from Dewey. Tension and resolution are valued more highly by  Western art and narrative than by other cultures. This video of a Nigerian percussion ensemble jamming is a superbly exciting piece of art, without having any particular form or narrative.

My punk and metal friends would also take issue with Dewey’s idea that art is a celebration of happy experience, of balance and satisfaction. Either lovers of “ugly” art find balance and satisfaction in ugliness, or happiness and balance are not as attractive to them as Dewey thinks.

Richard Shusterman wants to know, if we’re going to define art as being equal to aesthetic experience, do we then have to reclassify looking at a magnificent sunset as an art experience? He seems to think that’s a silly idea. I don’t see anything wrong with it. This bears more thinking about.

Noël Carroll joins me in taking issue with Dewey’s idea that art has to involve development and closure. He points out that John Cage’s 4′33″ has neither. One could respond that 4′33″ has more development and closure than you would think, as Phillip Jackson does. Or you could my position that John Cage made terrible music and we shouldn’t worry too hard about it.

Here’s an intriguing corollary to the idea of aesthetic experiences as flow: it’s possible that babies, animals and Stone Age people are/were in a flow state most of the time. Maybe James Brown is right: we should aspire to “swing on the vine, check out your mind, in the jungle brother.”

Art is proof that man can consciously restore the union of sensation, needs, and actions found in animal life. Consciousness adds regulation, selection and variation to this process. The idea of art is, then, humanity’s greatest accomplishment… Although it is sometimes helpful to distinguish between fine and useful art, Dewey thinks this extrinsic to art itself. What makes the work “fine” is that the artist lived fully while producing it. Fine art involves completeness of living in perception and making. Whether the thing is put to use is irrelevant. That most utensils today are non-aesthetic is because of the unhappy conditions of their production and consumption.

Dewey would have been all about STEM to STEAM:

Conclusions in thought are similar to the consummating phase of “an experience.” Thinking has its own aesthetic quality. It differs from art only in that its material consists of abstract symbols rather than qualities. The experience of thinking satisfies us emotionally because it is internally integrated, and yet no intellectual activity is integrated in this way unless it has aesthetic quality. Thus, for Dewey, there is no clear separation between the aesthetic and the intellectual.

Just as Dewey sees art and science as having broad overlap, so too does he see the experiences of the artist and the audience as essentially the same.

Dewey doesn’t talk much about music or music education specifically, but it’s easy to guess that he’d be on the same page as David Elliott and Marissa Silverman: that kids should study music to develop their emotional selves, to build empathy, to practice attentiveness, and above all to learn to flow. From the Stanford Encyclopedia:

Art instructs by way of communicating, but we need to understand such instruction as including imagination. Moral action depends on being able to imaginatively put oneself into another’s shoes and art encourages this. Indeed, art is more moral than morality, for morality tends to be bogged down in convention, unless it is the product of moral prophets, who have always been poets.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge Tom Leddy, the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia page, for that paragraph. It’s a good one and it bears some deeper thinking about.