Robin Williams, as he stood atop his teacher desk with overwhelming passion in the film “Dead Poet’s Society,” said with conviction “Why do I do this? To remind myself to constantly look at things in a different way.” With shock and awe, the all-boys secondary school class was asked to stand upon their own desks, to view life with a creative lens, to open up their minds. In the film, Robin Williams played a teacher who quoted Walt Whitman, a Romantic poet, to demonstrate how poetry, an art, was the key to understanding life. He viewed poetry as not only the driving force of the boys’ education, but a tool for them to become men. In discussing the Romantics’ view of man’s education, Frederick C. Beiser concludes his piece by saying that “the ideal society and state would be the “poetic” society and state, where rulers were directors of a vast public play in which all citizens were actors” (141). Undeniably, there has been a reduction of funds and attention paid towards the importance of art education; lack of appreciation for the arts in school has lead to more of a focus on assessments and education of the core subjects as the utmost priority. Because the Romantics would support the inclusion of various subjects in the curriculum for the creation of a well-rounded man, they would certainly criticize any negative treatment of the arts in schools. Proceeding a summary of the main points addressed throughout Beiser’s article, I will explore the debate about Art education and the rise of the STEAM vs. STEM movement and argue how I believe the Romantics would perceive such topics.
Frederick C. Beiser discusses the German Romantics and their use of the word bildung, which translates to education, and in some cases self-realization, and culture (133). He begins his piece by making evident that most of what teachers believe about education today stems from Romantic roots; this includes such things as individualism, education of both women and men, as well as education as a means to push away negative gendered stereotypes in our society (Beiser 134). The Romantics believed in the power of the natural world around them, our artistic nature as a means to ignite social change. Romantics did not view education as a means to an end, but more about the journey, the development of the self as a human being who has more than material needs. Education truly meant to learn about our own humanity.
Beiser recounts Kante and Fichte’s views of education as a means to teach one their “duty”, which was a concept criticized by the Romantics, and then moves to discuss the differences in views between Schiller and Rousseau throughout the discussion of the issues surrounding political education and what it means to correctly educate a “citizen”. Schiller, who the Romantics sided with the most, believes “a republic exists only if it consists of citizens having the virtue and wisdom to make laws; but citizens can be educated only if there is already a republic” (Beiser 139). What is important to note is that Schiller stated that people should be given opportunities to grow intellectually in various ways and develop their emotions; developing these aspects would help develop a great member of a society. The key idea is that the Romantics believed educating a man should always come before educating a citizen (140). This is easy to agree with, as understanding how to think and discuss the concept of knowledge, discuss one’s feelings, desires, and needs would serve not only to help a society socially, but politically. The Romantics believed in educating a human being according to their nature, which means they must value emotion and love of the human world in order to be a successful member of a society. In that, all humans would become walking “works of art” (Beiser 141).
In Beiser’s section “The Role of Arts in Education,” the central, most important difference between Rousseau and the Romantics became clear: Rousseau believed that arts had no place in public education, that essentially it was useless and only for entertainment value. Unlike Plato, who did not value the poet, Schiller made the poet the figure of the utmost importance (Beiser 140). Education within Romanticism is about the education and imagination of the human heart and mind (140). Beiser noted that this thinking differed greatly than in the Enlightenment because arts were not something that people were required to believe in like religion (140). The only criticism of art education that arose is that it had the potential to corrupt individuals if they did not understand that art is art (140).
With art education on the verge of demise, schools have discussed the purpose of art education, the NEA and Getty declaring that that an art curriculum at school should be focused on “art production, art history, aesthetics, art criticism, and knowledge regarding civilization” (Topping 20). Unfortunately, as stated by Topping, it appears as though “creative self-expression” as an assessment “has been denigrated for the sake of promoting the intellectual aspects of art education” (20). In terms of what I think the Romantics would believe, art education that pulls away from creative and emotional expression would be abhorrent, lacking compassion and the ability to turn the ‘man’ into a “work of art” as they desired (Beiser 140-141). Although beneficial to study the art of others, this should not be all. How are we to get in touch with our own humanity if we are never encouraged to express ourselves and use our creativity? Furthermore, does self-expression and creativity not make us better human beings, and in turn, better members of society more capable of crafting compassionate, just societies? Is not the answer to a better world then through the study of expression, creativity, and art? I believe these are core questions the Romantics would ask.
Babette Allina brings forth the STEAM vs. STEM debate and movement that is currently making its way across around the world in K-20 schools. Where STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics only, STEAM stands for all of that, but with the inclusion of Art. This is a movement where STEAM stands for the inclusion of various subjects for a well-rounded education, whereas STEM, the original movement, focuses solely on technical skills, believing they are at the core of what the current job market requires. More and more, schools are beginning to understand the value of arts education to the development of better engineers and scientists, including courses about the humanities and liberal arts in their scientific programs. Essentially, the STEAM movement strives to show just how central they are to the development of STEM subjects. In the article, it states that the “STEAM policy formation efforts reflected a call from industry for creative, critical thinkers,” which would align with the Romantics’ view of the importance of creativity (78). Citing Tim Brown, Allina makes evident that a STEAM approach to education is what the world needs to be able to face current issues: “unaffordable or unavailable healthcare…energy usage that outpaces the planet’s ability to support it, education systems that fail many students” (79). The Romantics would wholeheartedly agree with the STEAM’s view that art is a necessary component of a student’s education, as it is reported that students with more arts-based education perform better in other subjects, and in my belief, form more of a passion towards their current world and strive for social change (Allina 79). Not all may agree, however, as there are several places around the world that view technical subjects as worthy and do not see or understand the benefits of an artistic education.
With movements such as STEAM and the increase of the value of creativity in the current job market, I believe the Romantics would approve of an approach towards a more broad-based education that values the arts. I leave you then with this: What do you think the Romantics would believe about today’s treatment of arts in schools? How does the school you work at treat art education and its role in the development of a student? How do you, or don’t you, promote creativity in the classes you teach? As I do wholeheartedly, could you relate to the Romantics and their view of what it means to educate a man?
Allina, Babette. “The Development of STEAM Educational Policy to Promote Student Creativity and Social Empowerment,” Arts Education Policy Review, vol. 119, no. 2, 2018, pp.77-87.
Beiser, Frederick C. “Romanticism,” A Companion to Philosophy of Education, edited by Randall Curren, Blackwell, 2003, pp. 130-142.
Topping, Ronald J. “Art Education: A Crisis in Priorities.” Art Education, vol. 43, no. 1, 1990, pp. 20–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3193194.