Monday, September 21, 2015


It was "Beauty and Use" day in my first year seminar today. We read Horace Kallen's rather dense 1939 article by that name, distilled from the identically named course Kallen had been teaching at The New School at least since 1924-25 (above). I've taught about it before, but this was the first time in a seminar setting. It serves several functions. Historically it's a bridge from the founding generation's pragmatist sense of the demands of the new (which we encountered in Dewey's Democracy and Education) to the New School's revised identity as a center of social research in the modern arts: our next three classes focus on new forms of movement, image and sound as social research. Disciplinarily it's our taste of philosophical aesthetics (the class is introducing writing in many disciplines and modes), and its invocation of Keats' famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (above) allowed us to spend some time with poetry as well. (One student proved to be an expert reciter of poems, even though she'd not seen it before.) It's also the first of several readings which are the published versions of influential courses taught at The New School. I'm also trying to get students to see and seek out the sorts of influences, contrasts and connections which college-level reflection demands. So we spent much of today talking about "pragmatism" and how similar Dewey on education is to Kallen on art.
Even without a renewed exposure to Dewey (and the Deweyan legacies I'm encountering at Teachers College) I'd try to get students to figure things out, link to things they learned before, notice shared arguments and points of reference, but in a room full of people who've just read Dewey I couldn't help frequently pointing out how what we were doing was just what we'd read about... For several students I could see the "Aha!" when I showed them the pamphlet of Kallen's from 1932 at left. "You know what the title refers to," I said, and then they remembered, yes they did: Dewey's argument for "immaturity" as a power of growth which should never be left behind makes reference to humanity's distinctive "prolonged infancy." (In fact, Kallen's argument is a little different, close to Dewey's critique of education disconnected from life, but not couched in quite the same terms; for Dr. Kallen "infancy" is a state artificially maintained by finishing school-like colleges which shelter students from the real-life experience which alone makes learning meaningful and, perhaps, possible. None of our early faculty had much interest in "traditional" college age students...)

And a final connection - more a sort of parallel, framed by the meeting of the parallel lines half a century later. We also read Frank Alvah Parsons' 1911 address "Art in Advertising" which, in a completely different setting, argued against the idea that art can and must be for its own sake. His view that applied art is no less art for its achievement of some other purpose (like convincing someone to buy something) was interestingly like and unlike Kallen's more abstract argument that beauty is a moment in the adventure of use. I personally think Kallen's argument ("Beauty is accomplished use; use is beauty in the making") a little more profound, but for present purposes it's enough to have raised the question if the New School's turn away from traditional conceptions of knowledge and education can lend its later merger with Parsons a retrospective fitness. Pragmatism and "design thinking," who new?

1 comment:

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