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Schools should enhance aesthetic education

WANG GUODONG | 2021-01-06
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A performer teaches students Huangmei Opera at Gusang Primary School, in Xuyi County, Jiangsu Province, Dec. 16, 2018. Photo: XINHUA 

Aesthetic education at schools holds the key to improving the average aesthetic quality of Chinese people. It is important to identify the goals and approaches to conduct aesthetic education, and to better build a curriculum system in which aesthetic education could promote individual and social development. 

Art courses 
Art is the concentrated expression of beauty. Although art education is different from aesthetic education, it is the most essential and fundamental part of a school’s aesthetic education. 
When designing a curriculum for aesthetic education, we should pay attention to students' artistic abilities and humanistic spirit, and avoid filling art courses with dense knowledge or techniques. Apart from offering music, art, and calligraphy lessons, schools should also try to offer curriculum subjects such as dancing or drama, both of which are integrated art forms. Unfortunately, in most cases, art categories like dancing and drama have been missing from Chinese schools’ art education. Dancing is a performance art depicting a body in motion, while drama is an integrated art form that combines language, movement, stage art, and music to express human thought and emotions. Bringing in dancing, drama, and films to schools' art courses helps to cultivate students’ synesthesia for art and beauty-appreciation. It helps develop students' taste and aesthetic judgement by engaging their multiple senses: vision, hearing, and movement. 
Regarding course content, besides art classics, it is also important to introduce art with regional features, the national arts of other countries, as well as modern and contemporary art. An art course should not limit itself to merely introducing classical fine art, but should display multiple aesthetic views. Art courses should help disseminate and inherit China's splendid aesthetic culture by popularizing calligraphy, seal cutting, and traditional Chinese opera, etc. Meanwhile, the courses should help carry forward the unique spirit of China’s aesthetic education, such as Tang (618–907) painter Zhang Zao's famous remark "outwardly learn from nature and inwardly trace the source of their own heart" when creating art, and pursing "harmony between man and nature" when appreciating art. By doing so, the courses are able to develop in students a profound love for their own country. 
Meanwhile, we should develop aesthetic education courses with local or school-based features. Studies in anthropology of art indicate that some artwork produced by ethnic minorities and tribal artists are as good as some classic art. What's more, some aesthetic art activities mirror human nature even better than traditional art. In addition, the pioneering spirit displayed by contemporary and modern artists may help students develop critical thinking and self-identity. All in all, an art course with more diversified content would help students become more open-minded, which is exactly how we can strengthen national identity and improve cultural understanding: with the aid of aesthetic education. 
To meet curriculum objectives, while trying to help students develop an artistic sensibility and the ability to express themselves through art creation, we also need to infuse the course with elements from a range of art disciplines, such as the philosophy of art, art history, and art criticism. By acquainting students with the many art forms and classic artworks throughout the human history, classes will enable students to understand how art emerged in different stages of human civilizations, as well as against different social, political, economic, and cultural backgrounds. 
In addition, we should help students to not only identify and understand colors, lines, melodies, and harmony, but also critically analyze art forms, connotations, values and meanings. It is also essential to encourage students to think about art, such as exploring the definition and purpose of art, and the relationships between art and life. Therefore, by including philosophy, history, and art criticism in art courses, aesthetic education will go beyond merely transmitting knowledge about art techniques, and evolve into a way to develop students' humanistic quality and an eye for beauty. 
For aesthetic education to play its part in cultivating students and facilitating their all-around development, we need to do more than offer students art courses. We need to build schools into integrated communities of aesthetic education. 
First, we need to infuse aesthetic education within various subjects. The mission of aesthetic education should not be the sheer burden of art education and art teachers. Instead, teachers from other disciplines should also take the initiative to infuse aesthetic education to their classes. According to the Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Extensively Strengthening and Improving the Aesthetic Education in Schools released by the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council, it is important to integrate aesthetic education to the entire process of talent cultivation by infusing it into all disciplines, whose resources should be tapped to implement aesthetic education. For instance, the beauty of language exhibited in the humanities, such as Chinese and history; the beauty of science and order demonstrated in mathematics, and physics; and the beauty of the soul and good health displayed in morality and physical education. 
The infusion of aesthetic education lies not only in seeking aesthetic elements from other subjects, but also in creating education scenarios in which teachers and students could converse and create art freely. 
Second, we should enhance integration between different disciplines. We can start with combining subjects within art. Traditionally, the art education is split into two patterns: music and art. However, isolating different art forms might not be helpful for developing students’ synesthesia for art or improving their humanistic quality. Different art forms should be merged together in art education, so that students develop a full taste for art. When music, drawing, dancing, and drama are integrated organically, the art forms collide and complement one another to foster students’ ability to appreciate beauty with their eyes, ears, vocal cords, and bodies. 
What's more, we should combine art courses with other disciplines. This helps develop students' humanistic quality and scientific literacy in an all-round way. An apt example of this are the STEAM courses that have recently become in vogue. Revolving around a core subject, STEAM integrates art with science, technology, engineering, and math curricula to bring creative and engaging concepts into STEM. It is the interdisciplinary integration of art and science, humanities and technologies, thinking and practices. It is a tool to foster students' full-fledged development. 
Third, we need to transform education spaces into a hidden influence on students. A school's education space interacts with its students in a way that inevitably gives birth to hidden influencing factors. Thus, it is important to create an education space that exerts a subtle influence on a student's aesthetic quality. Therefore, when designing art classrooms or cultural spaces inside a campus, we need to abandon spatial arrangements that lack creativity and artistry, and build an education space that is artistic, humanistic, and individualized. 
Daily-life aesthetics 
In contemporary society, the barriers between appreciation of beauty, art, and life have been broken, as life and aesthetics draw closer and closer towards one another. Against this backdrop, it is necessary to enrich aesthetic education curricula that is true to life, and start to help students acquire a sound aesthetic quality for life. In fact, an aesthetic education that is related to daily life dates back to ancient China. Cai Yuanpei (1868–1940), a forerunner of aesthetic education in modern China, pointed out that five of the "six arts (rites, music, archery, chariotry, calligraphy, and mathematics)" in Confucian-based educational philosophy are related to aesthetics. In fact, even mathematics is not without beauty. Thus it is fair to say that all of the six arts make up a comprehensive aesthetic education that is relevant to life experience. 
Schools should include life-related aesthetic courses into the system of aesthetic education. This kind of course may include the following two parts. First, beauty appreciation courses which are related to our daily lives, including floriculture, tea culture, the art of dining, living, and costumes. Seemingly "useless," these courses will allow students to not only obtain living skills, but also gradually develop an aesthetic sense and become "life artists" that are able to appreciate and create beauty in life. 
The second section of the courses may be related to the aesthetics of lives. By encouraging students to experience and think about their lives as well as all lives in nature, this part of the course can combine other disciplines, such as morality and psychology. Life-related aesthetic education should focus not only on owning art and beautifying life, but also on helping students acquire an aesthetic attitude for life and achieve harmony between body and soul. In addition, students should learn to appreciate both their own lives and the lives of all natural beings. This would help them achieve a harmonious relationship with nature, and develop an aesthetic way of living as human. This is exactly the ultimate goal of aesthetic education. 
Wang Guodong is from the Research Centre for Aesthetic Education at the School of Education Science at Nanjing Normal University. 
Edited by WENGRONG