Schiller: Aesthetic education and the contemporary scene

Schiller (1759-1805)
Friedrich Schiller

“The whole aesthetic condition is the most fruitful in relation to knowledge and morality. … A disposition which comprises in itself the wholeness of humanity must necessarily include every individual expression of it, according to its capacity; a disposition which removes all limits from the totality of human nature must necessarily remove them also from every individual expression of it. Precisely because it takes no individual function of humanity exclusively under its protection, it is well disposed to every one of them without distinction, and it favours no single one especially, just because it is the ground of possibility of them all.”

— Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, (1795), 22nd Letter.

In today’s educational environment, there is something Schillerian going on. Perhaps we are rediscovering the aesthetic, as Schiller envisaged it. For Schiller, the aesthetic disposition balances our sensuous, rational, and moral capacities in an apprehension of the wholeness of an expression. Such a mood sees the how human capacities are united to produce something with a beautiful form. Similarly, in modern pedagogy which focuses on the activity of the learner, attention is given to how the student’s expression harmoniously unites a whole range of inputs and mental processes to produce something new, relative to the learner’s own experience. In educational circles, this is spoken of under the rubric of ‘constructivism’, but this is misleading for a number of reasons (usually concerns over relativism). Perhaps reawakening Schiller’s concept of aesthetic education would help in this instance.

The aesthetic disposition is the highest of our abilities, because it unites all of our disparate processes. So while Schiller argues for a radical equality amongst different expressions on the one hand, and the inherent potential of all humanity on the other, he also will ruthlessly point out where an individual fails to exercise the whole of their abilities. These are the twin criteria of education: equality, with differentiation according to effort.  Equality without differentiation gets us nowhere. Differentiation without equality simply reproduces social privilege.

Here’s a brief article on Schiller from the Guardian, published in the 250th anniversary of his birth. Also, here’s a short biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.


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