Recognising instead of Knowing: Aesthetic Education

“Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays”. With these words Friedrich Schiller laid the foundation stone in his programmatic work On the Aesthetic Education of Man in 1795 for what we still understand today as aesthetic education. His idea is based on the insight that sensual and aesthetic experiences expand one’s own perceptual capabilities and may result in more extensive knowledge than purely cognitive learning processes. Interacting with art and culture, communal singing, painting or exercise have proven to promote social skills and intellectual dexterity. For the development of emotional intelligence, a differentiated absorption capacity is also of crucial importance – one further reason to grant a top priority to aesthetic education.

Waldorf education plays a pioneering role in this regard. Its founder Rudolf Steiner – also in reference to Schiller – relied on a universal training of the senses that appeals to the body, soul and spirit. Art plays a central role in this and by no means only as a means to an end. “As an educator, you should not talk too much about the fact that this or that art is ‘useful’ in developing this or that human capability”, Steiner wrote in 1923 in his article Education and Art in the weekly journal Das Goetheanum and went on to explain, “Art is of course there for art’s sake. But as an educator you should not love art so much that you do not wish to let people forego experiencing it as they develop. (…) The mind is only awakened to real life through art.” (GA 36, page 291) When the first Waldorf school was established in Stuttgart in 1919, art and aesthetics were of hardly any concern in the general school system. The Waldorf curriculum on the other hand included practical and artistic activities alongside the classic school subjects from the start. They also enrich instruction outside the respective subjects – as a method of seizing and appropriating the world.

Personal development as the key
However, the principle of aesthetic education not only benefits youngsters but also proves to be rather fruitful at universities. For example, at the Alanus University for Arts and Social Sciences in Alfter near Bonn, which the SAGST has supported as part of a strategic sponsorship programme for almost 20 years. “Our commitment to an integrated and free education system is based on our desire to prepare people for the complex social challenges of our time”, says project manager Christoph Teixeira. “It’s not just a question of conveying excellent technical knowledge but also about encouraging personal development on many levels. As such, aesthetic education is of major relevance.” Alanus Rector Prof Hans-Joachim Pieper adds, “On the one hand, our engagement with the arts broadens our horizon of perception, feeling, thinking and judgement. On the other hand, practical artistic activity always involves the individual as a whole.” As aesthetic education also supports the senses, physical awareness, the mind and spiritual experiences specifically in addition to the rational part of a person, it has an important task in all courses at the Alanus University. As he goes on to say, “Aesthetic education corresponds to the purposeless harmony of feelings and reason, which Schiller focused on with the term ‘play’. I would interpret this that an individual is only a complete human being if he keeps all his assets in motion and relates them to each other – and this is where artistic activity and aesthetic education make a significant contribution.”

Opening up new areas of experience
This approach comes to fruition not only within the university itself but also in a large number of projects in the public domain. Up-and-coming architects are building a sculpture made of roof battens together with the residents of a neighbourhood in order to develop ideas for the redesign of a square that has seen better days. Students of painting work with prison inmates or homeless people; art projects such as a joint theatrical play with young people in an inner-city school can release unprecedented strengths as well as open up new experiences. In addition, the healing potential of artistic and creative processes also unfold in the medical and therapeutic sector. Dancing, singing or painting promote physical and mental health and can usefully support medical treatments, as a WHO study also confirmed that was published in late 2019. Artistic therapies such as music, painting or even eurythmy therapy have an established place in anthroposophic medicine. The Research Institute for Creative Arts Therapies (RIArT), which is affiliated with the Department of Artistic Therapies and Therapeutic Science at the Alanus University, has been conducting its systematic research for five years. “Art is an opportunity to review and reshape your relationship with yourself and the world. The fact that the World Health Organisation sees art as a means of recovery is of course a great head start and a strong signal for us as a university,” says the dean Prof Harald Gruber.


Some more perspectives on the subject of aesthetic education (only available in German):