A number of readers of this blog applauded the recent references to The Intelligence of Feeling, a commanding work on affective learning by Robert W. Witkin. Witkin playfully dedicates his book to Dr Leslie Ralph, who he introduces as a friend and philosopher.

At 16 I came across Descartes’s dictum ‘Cogito, ergo sum’.
I took it at once to old Les who used to help us examine such things.
‘I think therefore I am,’ I announced. There was a pause.
‘I feel therefore I am’, he replied quietly.
I knew then that here was a beginning to the matter.

A very different beginning to the matter was put this way by the Tongan poet Konai Helu Thaman in her poem Thinking.

you say that you think
therefore you are
but thinking belongs
in the depths of the earth
we simply borrow
what we need to know

From different sides of the planet, Witkin and Thaman are drawing attention to the same problem; that Western education privileges knowledge systems which deal principally with compartmentalised conceptual content, presented as universal and generalizable. Systematic, empirically based observation is at the heart of such knowledge creation and transfer. While our senses capture the experience of the world as it is lived, it is the brain which interprets those sensory impressions to create thoughts and concepts. Thinking takes place in the depths of the brain and not, as Thaman poetically suggests, ‘in the depths of the earth’.

However, the richness of her metaphor to describe thinking flows easily and with greater intellectual coherence for Pacific Island cultures where knowledge and value systems are ‘more holistic, interconnected, experiential, and context specific.’ (p4.) As the world comes to terms with the legacies of colonialism and racism, Indigenous knowledge systems are no longer being seen as inferior or ‘pre-logical and magical’. Increasingly ethno-biological studies are uncovering “the encyclopaedic depths of Indigenous people’s knowledges of their environments, from agriculture, medicine, fisheries, navigation, to climate and weather.”(p15.)

Curiously, this European belief in a hierarchy of knowledge systems also snubbed one of its own inventions; the aesthetic dimension of human consciousness.  The field of aesthetics is a knowledge system produced by the European enlightenment itself, with an unbroken 200-year line of thought from Immanuel Kant through to recent philosopher/educators like Suzanne Langer, Maxine Greene, Peter Abbs and Ken Robinson.

Through them we have come to recognise that ‘Aesthetic’ refers to a distinct category of human understanding.  For Suzanne Langer, our need for symbolization is the essential act of human thought, and she proposed different, but equally important, symbolic orders of meaning making for us. She acknowledged the cognitive operations of mind most commonly found in propositional and linear knowledge systems like Mathematics, Language, Engineering and Business in addition to the operation of Presentational knowledge systems embodied in Religion, Ritual and the Arts. For Peter Abbs it is in the Presentational that the aesthetic is experienced, denoting “a mode of sensuous knowing essential for the life and development of consciousness; aesthetic response is inevitably, through its sensory and physical operations, cognitive in nature (p.53).” It is our experiences in the aesthetic field, with their distinctive non-linear and non-literal symbol mongering power, which expands human expressivity, even allowing us to “express what words can never express”. In the 1982 report by the Gulbenkian Foundation The Arts in Schools, Ken Robinson (later Sir Ken Robinson) who wrote the final draft, asserted the centrality of the aesthetic and creative in education, and concluded that denying children opportunities for aesthetic development “is simply to fail to educate them as fully developed, intelligent and feeling human beings”(p.20).  

However, just as long-standing Indigenous knowledge systems were for too long passed off as magical and unreliable, so too was aesthetic understanding. Particularly recently. As politicians direct educators to deliver jobs, skills, growth and economic futures, so we have seen a diminution of the place of aesthetic dimension in learning and the subsequent loss of imaginative and creative force and resourcefulness in teaching and learning. This slide cannot continue as we build Education’s New Normal.

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Professor Emeritus Brad Haseman, EVP, Kadenze, Inc.
John Holyoke, Associate Director, Lincoln Centre Education, New York.

Credit for Image: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash