Christopher Turner OBE BSc (Hons) MA PGCE FRSA

Department: Graduate School of Education
Discipline: Education
Research Centre/Unit: Centre for Creativity, Sustaiability and Educational Futures

Project Summary

Supervisors: Dr Deborah Osberg and Dr Emese Hall

Supervisory Team

In my research I shall draw on the predominantly theoretical and philosophical work of Ranciere, Dewey and Biesta, each of whom look at aesthetics and politics from different, but overlapping, perspectives. Aesthetics (Gr. – aesthesis) refers to the holistic area of perception and sensation as opposed to conceptual and rational thought. Roald and Lang (2013) suggest that ‘aesthetics, which concerns the qualities, patterns, feelings and emotions that make meaning possible for us, provides the key to understanding how we can experience anything as meaningful in our lives’. 

Ranciere (2004) suggests that genuine political or artistic activities share the ideal of challenging the status quo, which could also be considered as ‘critical thinking’ or ‘higher level learning’. He refers to this as ‘the distribution of the sensible’ which is the balance between forms of action, production, perception and thought. In this ‘distribution of the sensible’ distribution refers to form of inclusion and exclusion and the ‘sensible’ refers to that which is capable of being captured by the senses (Ranciere, 2004). He would claim that politics has an inherently aesthetic dimension and conversely that aesthetics has an inherently political one. Dewey (1934) considers that aesthetic enquiry is transformative by seeking meaning through attention to detail and experience thus creating a rupture from the ordinary and ultimately divorcing it from traditional associations. Similarly, Ranciere (2010) considers aesthetics and politics as a form of ‘dissensus’ which disrupts, or cleaves, conventional identities thus conceiving of the ‘freedom of aesthetics’.

Mezirow (2009) defines transformative learning as ‘the process by which we transform problematic frames of reference (mindsets, habits of mind, meaning perspectives) – sets of assumption and expectation – to make them more inclusive, open, reflective and emotionally able to change.’ Kegan (2009) introduces a distinction between ‘informational learning’, aimed at increasing knowledge, and ‘transformational learning’ which develops the capacity for abstract thinking that leads learners to recognise, value, question and change their ways of knowing.

The same could be said of cultural development and politics. Dewey, for example, argues that human beings are ‘acculturated organisms’ (Dewey, 1988) which emerge through ‘the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activities of each is modified and regulated by partnership’ (Dewey, 1958).  Furthermore, he contends that there is an intimate connection between democracy and education (see also Biesta, 2006) because it is that form of social interaction that best facilitates and supports ‘the liberation of human capacities for their full development’ (Festenstein, 1997). Biesta (2006) critically considers learning as too often being seen as predominantly ‘acquisition’ within ‘rational communities’. He favours the view that learning should be seen as ‘responding’.  Consequently he contends that if ‘we look at learning in this way we can say that someone has learned something not when she is able to copy and reproduce what already existed, but when she responds to what is unfamiliar, what is different, what challenges, irritates, or even disturbs.’ (ibid, p 68). This notion, it seems to me, could be interpreted as resonating with previous discussions of aesthetics and politics.  Biesta continues by suggesting that the type of learning to which he refers ‘is educationally the most significant and important form, since it has to do with ways in which we come into presence as unique, singular beings.’   (my italics).

Perhaps the way to focus these philosophical strands is to combine them with the notion that ‘we should not approach education from the point of view of an educator trying to produce or release something’ (Biesta, 2006) but that the focus should be on the ways in which the new beginning of individuals can ‘come into presence’ (ibid, p 9). Biesta goes on to argue that ‘we can only come into presence populated by others who are not like us’. He considers that a world of ‘plurality and difference’ is essential but inherently makes education a very difficult process. In his book ‘Beyond Learning’ (Biesta, 2006) he focuses not on ‘the democratic person’ but on the ways in which democratic (and therefore inherently aesthetic and political) action is possible in schools and in society.