Art in Education

IT has frequently been observed that whereas the history, appreciation, and production of literature have been an integral part of American education for generations, the other arts have been singularly neglected. Many colleges have had courses in archæology, some have even ventured into the history of music, but to think of painting, sculpture, and architecture as necessary parts of higher education is still far from common practice.

The determination of what composes a college curriculum has little logical basis. Curricula are usually determined by historical accident. Thus in most of the Eastern liberal colleges the nucleus of the courses was composed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when education seems — whatever the reality — to have existed mainly as training for the ministry. Clergymen needed Hebrew, Latin, and Greek for reasons which are too obvious to mention; they needed logic and apologetics and ‘moral philosophy’; they needed, in other words, whatever would train them to read and interpret the truths of the Christian religion. The writer of these lines in 1909 entered a New England university where Greek and Latin were required for the Bachelor of Arts degree, where economics, political science, and sociology were all lumped into one three-term course, where one year of any natural science was sufficient for the degree, and where art was relegated to a sleep course about plaster casts of Hellenistic and Roman statues, a course taken largely by football stars who needed a rest, and music was given by an itinerant professor who arrived from somewhere for an hour or so a week and then disappeared. But when it came to literature, we had a large department which had courses running from Anglo-Saxon to the Age of Victoria. We had courses in French and German and Italian. We had a department of history with courses considered almost as respectable as those in the department of Greek. In fact, if all the courses given in the university in any department which dealt with the past were classified as history, then fully ninety per cent of the courses sufficient and necessary for the A. B. degree were historical. But neither painting nor sculpture nor architecture was history.

There are still colleges whose curricula are as strangely unbalanced. In fact, the colleges whose purposes are clearly and intelligibly set forth and whose curricula are honestly devised to achieve them are the exceptions, not the rule. But where is the school which, recognizing that the arts are the one lasting contribution which a society can make to history, sets as part of its task their understanding and appreciation? You will find high-school girls with wrinkled foreheads trying to ferret the meaning out of Il Penseroso and college men turning Ovid into something more strange than ever appeared in his Metamorphoses, but how often do you find their teachers thinking it essential for them to understand the paintings of Rembrandt — or even to see them?

I am not attempting to argue that no man should go to his grave without having understood and appreciated the artistic masterpieces of the past. We know, of course, that there are no rules by which we can define education for all. One cannot be just educated; one must be educated in something. There are too many purposes to be achieved by men and women, for which training of a highly specialized nature is required, to permit one to describe in general terms the educated man or woman. One does not simply teach; one teaches subjects to people in different sorts of schools. The purpose of teaching German to boys in a technical school is justifiably different from that of teaching clay modeling to girls in a normal school. It is precisely the existence of those three variables — the subject, the pupil, and the school — which makes so much discussion about education and its aims profitless and abstract. Hence it would be foolish to argue that all people in all schools need training in the fine arts. At the same time it is possible and desirable to indicate what place such training should have in certain institutions.


All the arts seem to have had their origin in utilities. As late as the thirteenth century, the subject matter of painting and sculpture was their main raison d’être. These arts existed to teach a lesson. This does not mean that people did not enjoy the beauty of frescoes and miniatures and stained glass and statues; but I doubt whether it would ever have occurred to anyone to paint a fresco — or, better, to order one painted — simply for the fun of looking at its pattern. We know from the researches of the members of the Warburg Institute how even later, well into the sixteenth century, the meaning of paintings was of primary importance, and how that meaning was often so subtle and so recondite that only observers schooled in, for example, the platonism of fifteenth-century Florence could decipher it. Many of these paintings, including some hanging in American galleries, are still unread, and many of those which have been read, such as those of Piero di Cosimo, no longer can mean much of anything except to scholars. Whether a painting be called ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ or ‘The Finding of Vulcan’ must seem a purely academic question to most visitors to the Hartford Atheneum, since few of them can tell the difference between Hylas and Vulcan. The best proof of this is the fact that for years everyone was satisfied to call the picture by the former title.

Whatever the primitive purpose of a work of art, history shows us that when that purpose becomes obsolete or forgotten the work of art, instead of dying a natural death, goes right along being admired (or disliked) as if nothing had happened. Nothing is commoner than the shifting of character from one thing to another, sometimes from one extreme to its opposite. We have all seen plays which were written as serious social tracts or melodramas played with great success as farces, and we have reason to believe that at least one play, The Merchant of Venice, changed from being a comedy to being a serious drama. But what is still more astonishing is that when a tool loses its utility it frequently takes on beauty, and instead of being thrown away as useless it is treasured as an objet d’art. This sounds like a naughty paradox, but if one wishes evidence that it is not let one look first at the modern living room with its candlesticks, fireplaces, and electrified oil lamps, and second at the museums with their collections of old watches, swords, suits of armor, ancient costumes, metal cooking utensils, keys, even fragments of architecture and textiles. One might without too great loss of sense define beauty as obsolete utility, and, though one would know little about its essence, one would at any rate know something of its history.

In the third place, it must never be forgotten that at no time, even during the so-called ‘æsthetic’ period, were the arts divorced from the rest of civilization, but on the contrary they were so intimately a part of it that they gave it its characteristic temper and color. From the Age of Pericles to the Age of Victoria, it was the artists, poets, sculptors, architects, and, when they existed, painters and musicians, who made their times and not the times which made them. If you remove Browning and Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites and Sir Edwin Landseer and Ruskin and the Albert Memorial and the Crystal Palace and Tenniel and their fellow artists and works of art from the middle of the nineteenth century in England, you have left the empty shell of a culture, textbooks in science and philosophy whose interest, ironically enough, is largely æsthetic. For when a scientific or philosophical theory is superseded it survives only as a work of art, as evidence not of truth but of the working of a human mind.

But what is more, one can read the science of the past more truly in the light of contemporary art than in the light of logic. For when a theory is false, and yet the work of a great mind, one is forced to wonder how so intelligent a being could have been so blind. How could Aristotle have believed that the velocity of falling bodies was a function of their weight, or Darwin have believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics? Why did Newton spend so much time on the interpretation of the Book of Revelation and Saint Thomas uncritically accept stories of animal behavior from Plutarch and Pliny and Ælian? Why did John Locke not see the weaknesses in his theory which Berkeley was so quick to point out, and why did Berkeley assert without uneasiness what Hume immediately showed to be an inconsistency? None of these men were morons after all, in spite of some of the histories of ideas, and, if they thought as they did, it was because their thoughts made sense to them. Unless one locates these men in the totality of their ages, one has no idea of what was taken for granted by their contemporaries and what seemed problematical, or, as it is more stylish to say, what was the intellectual climate of their times. Descartes and Poussin were almost strict contemporaries and Corneille was born when Poussin was a boy of twelve. Poussin painted his ‘Parnassus’ about 1635; the Discourse on Method appeared in 1637; the Cid was first played in 1636. Which of these three men determined the character of his age?

Very few artists are original thinkers in fields outside their art. If one were to go through Shakespeare looking for original thoughts, in the sense of scientific or philosophic thoughts, one would be forced to the lamentable conclusion that Bernard Shaw was right about him. But who would dream of doing so, except a man who was very naïve? The same thing is true of Michelangelo. We know enough of his mind to see that he had read his Plato and understood a good part of what he had read, but his Plato is now fossilized in his sculpture and poetry and one who wants to understand Renaissance platonism would do better to read Ficino than Michelangelo. He contributed nothing to the history of philosophy; his contributions to the history of civilization need no appraisal here.

But when one reads Shakespeare one sees beyond the glorious poetry and the drama and the insight into human mentality, the suffering and the joy, the music, the voluptuousness of the sounds, the intensity of the emotion, an age when Plutarch was still a biographer and Montaigne a philosopher. Here is the funnel through which philosophy and science were poured into the public mind, transformed into language which would never be forgotten, though the origin of its thoughts would be so lost that it would have to await some patient candidate for the Ph. D. to be found again. When one sees the ‘Last Judgment,’one sees not merely a theological statement, but that statement in a form which was to become standard for generations afterwards, though it concealed details — such as the relation of the Greek philosophers to the Evangelists — which were to be forgotten until recent times. What such artists have done for civilization is not to invent new thoughts, but to present history and philosophy and religion and even science in such form that later ages will accept them as the culture of their times. The Age of Elizabeth is largely the age of Shakespeare, for when we think of that age we think of it in Shakespeare’s terms: it was an age of adventure, of personal greatness, of loyalty to sovereign, of poetic fury, of lyric strength. We can no longer think of it in any other way. So when we think of the Age of Augustus we inevitably think of it in terms of Vergil, Ovid, Horace, and the architects who rebuilt a nobler Rome for the Emperor. Augustan Rome contained statesmen, generals, economists, engineers, astrologers, and other men of science and philosophy; but when the Italian Renaissance and the first French Empire tried to revive it they revived what they thought were its architecture and its sculpture.


If what has been said is true — or at any rate probable — it would seem that the best reason for including the history of the arts in a college curriculum is that it is the truest cross-section of the history of civilization. The non-æsthetic activities of mankind which have meant anything to human life are preserved in them in the form in which their significance was deepest. They show us not only what was permanent in the past but also what changes the past underwent as it progressed into the present.

Let us take a single example.

All of us who have had at least the remnants of a classical education have heard some such phrase as ‘the Greek way of life.’ It might have been suspected by someone at some time that after all there were a great many Greeks from the time, let us say, of Homer, to be conservative, to the time of Theocritus. These Greeks lived all over the Mediterranean, on the Greek peninsula, on the islands, in the Asiatic colonies, in southern Italy, and in northern Africa. At home they split up into four main states, according to the books, — Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Athens, — each of which had its own way of life and no very warm feelings for any of the others. The differences therefore were certainly as great as the similarities. But we still hear of the Greek way of life.

Some of this talk comes from those Greeks who make a contrast between Greeks and barbarians. But even they look upon other Greeks as profoundly different from themselves. Thus Plato, who had little use for barbarians, didn’t think of Greeks as all of a piece; he knew that Spartans had a kind of civilization which was fundamentally different from that of Athens, and as for Aristotle, one has only to read his Politics to see how diverse he knew Greek cultures to be. Hence, if one asks where we derived the idea of a Greek way of life, one has to look for it among non-Greeks. If one begins such a search for the Greeks as an ideal, one finds them first in Alexandria, then in Rome, then in the Middle Ages, then in Renaissance Florence, then in classical France, then in neo-classic France and England, then in the nineteenth century everywhere. We find that the Greeks were a pastoral group of lyricists, were primitive Christians, were bestial idolaters, were great philosophers believing especially in self-knowledge and moderation, were above all sculptors of nude bodies, were graceful and very clean-looking English undergraduates, were semi-savage bipeds whose poetry was rationalized myth and whose religion was bloodthirsty ritual. Greek art has been the art of the fifth century B. C., the art of the Hellenistic period, the art of Roman copyists rubbed smooth by eighteenth-century restorers, the art of archaic islanders.

Every age, in short, has had its own Greeks, but — and this is what I am driving at — the Greeks of every age survive only in the arts of each age, so that from the archaizing Romans through the mediæval sculptors who put Aristotle and Pythagoras on their cathedrals, through Michelangelo and Canova and Leighton down to Paul Manship, we find a series of Greeks as the Greeks, and the choice they made and the types they fixed were made and fixed not through some inexplicable caprice but because numberless influences flowed into the minds of these men and others and emerged as the style of an epoch.

Similar remarks can be made about Greek architecture. It is only in recent times that archæologists have dug up enough ruins of Greek buildings to generalize about them. The rest is tradition. But when Alberti tried to revive Greek architecture, he set a type which was no more like any real Greek building than Monteverdi’s Orfeo was like an Æschylean tragedy, and yet it became Greek architecture for several generations. I can still remember the shock I received when I first thought of comparing Greek drawings on vases with Flaxman and reread Andrew Lang after being able to read Homer. My generation was brought up with the idea of ‘æsthetic’ Greeks, and we got the idea from Alma-Tadema, Leighton, Moore, ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ ‘Marius the Epicurean,’ plaster casts of the Discobolus and the Parthenon frieze, Keats, Puvis de Chavannes, with overtones of Matthew Arnold and, oddly enough, Swinburne. I am sure that many a child in America thought of the Parthenon as something resembling the First National Bank in his home town, and it might not be an exaggeration to say that the architect of the First National Bank would probably have agreed.

It is easy enough to say all this, but no student will believe it until he has seen the evidence. A course in the history of art could be so devised that by means of lantern slides alone a teacher could easily untangle the various traditions which are twisted together to make our own and show their antecedents in visible form. Would that not be more impressive than a mere verbal account?

To see with one’s bodily eyes the history of the human mind in all its intricacies is, however, only one reason for giving to the fine arts a more prominent place in our programs than they have usually had. Another reason is that for which we study great works of literature. One doesn’t expect a student to read Shakespeare simply because Shakespeare had certain dates during which other people of importance lived. If he were just a symptom of Elizabethan England, Sir Francis Drake would do as well or any one of a score of minor poets. For one cause or another Shakespeare happened to produce plays which have continued to interest the reading public, plays in which almost every generation has found some nutriment. It is true that the nutriment found has varied from generation to generation and that each has had its favorites and its own way of appreciating them. By now at any rate Shakespeare is a poet who has become ‘great’ and his very greatness makes him transcend his dates. One does not have to know why Shakespeare is great to know that he is great, and if a literature is lucky enough to have writers to whom successive generations have turned for inspiration, if for nothing else, we naturally feel that our students should know them as intimately as possible.

For, by perhaps an inexplicable desire to consolidate a tradition, men turn to the past and reinvigorate it year by year. They feel the need of an historical basis for their contemporary values. Even the men who like to overthrow the accepted standards will dig about in the past to find precedent for their new standards. Thus the French romanticists turned to Shakespeare as their predecessor and the classicists turned to Seneca. The Pre-Raphaelites turned to the pre-Renaissance painters for models to replace Raphael and his school. The Post-Impressionists turned to El Greco as a kind of early Cézanne, and now the Surrealists turn to Bosch and Arcimboldo as primitive Surrealists. So in the nineteenth century the founders of new religious sects maintained that they were going back to the Gospels. And in our own time it is not unusual to find political radicals proclaiming that their most revolutionary theories go back to the Constitution.


It is particularly in architecture that the æsthetic tradition of a country is most permanently fixed. Not only are buildings because of their very stuff inescapable memories of the past, confronting you on every hand, recalling to your eye the aspirations and failures of your forefathers, but there seems to be less of a tendency in architecture to experiment with new forms. One has only to think of the survival of the Gothic, even when functionally unsuitable, to see how true this is. There is, I venture to say, no functional reason why colleges should be built in the Gothic style, — particularly in America, where the first college buildings were in red brick ‘colonial,’ — but Gothic continues to hold such power over the builders’ imagination that many people would not recognize a college if it were not Gothic or derivative of Gothic.1 It may be weak-mindedness which does this, a lack of imagination, or a kind of superstitious reverence for what has been. But calling names does not solve problems — however persuasive it may be — and it is probable that human beings simply like to believe that they have authority for their novelties and are merely adding to a tradition when they are innovating.

Americans who have been born and brought up in New England or parts of the South and Middle West have before them a visible record of architectural tradition. They know what the form of American architecture was at least as early as the Federal period. The churches and mansions of their villages are a frame into which they fit, a background against which their lives can be painted. These buildings are like proverbs, a kind of homely unquestioned wisdom. But when men begin to move about into scenes which are unfamiliar, against backgrounds with which they have no historical relation, they hanker for evidence that they are still at home. So a traveler going into a church finds the words of the ritual comforting by their very familiarity, as when he sees his flag in a foreign port.

In America about the only external evidence of spiritual unity, besides our language, is our architecture. This is sometimes deprecated as standardization. Apart from the fact that most nations are much more standardized in speech, costume, law, and education than Americans are, we have been, one feels at times, somewhat intimidated by this form of criticism. The standardization of our urban architecture, even when it fills no useful material purpose, has the spiritual purpose of creating an American environment in which Americans feel at home. No further justification ought to be required. That is our language, and naturally it seems barbarous to foreigners. But most of us are in the condition of children who speak English correctly without knowing any English grammar. If the fine arts were an integral part of our curricula, we should understand why our æsthetic idiom is as it is and our great builders, from the anonymous carpenters who constructed the village cottages and churches of New England to Frank Lloyd Wright and beyond, would be looked upon as our Franklins and Emersons and Poes and Whitmans. The books of the latter group are more often than not covered with dust until a professor puts them on the list of required reading; the buildings of the former are seen and used in the daily lives of thousands.

We are, moreover, constantly complaining that our youth has no taste, that our cities are allowed to degenerate into slums, that our walls are covered with hideous reproductions of bad originals, that our magazine covers are vulgar, that our furniture is ugly, that our posters are banal — and most of this is true. But at the same time few raise the question of how a nation in which only the smallest fraction of the total population ever sees any first-rate paintings and statues or has been taught to understand the masterpieces of architecture which dot its cities, in which almost the whole body of students in the colleges can get a Bachelor’s degree without ever hearing the names of men and women who have produced the masterpieces of art, could be expected to be otherwise. It has been said that our fathers talked sound English because they were brought up on the English Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. They absorbed into their speech the best speech of the past. They did not consciously try to imitate the style of the King James Version. It became part of their spiritual substance. In the same way the village carpenter could build a house which was beautiful because he had acquired an architectural idiom which he never questioned. But young men and women who have no æsthetic idiom cannot be expected to do more than jabber like imbeciles when they are faced with a work of art. One painting is as good as another, so long as it is striking. They are no more made unhappy by ugliness than they are by bad grammar.

The pity of it is that we have an æsthetic idiom in America as we have a linguistic one. Like all idioms, it has grown out of the experiences of many peoples, adapted from traditions which have been twisted together to form a new and perhaps more resistant rope. To some of us with European training, educated in the older universities whose faculties looked to Europe for approval, this idiom seemed provincial, a kind of æsthetic patois. But Tuscan was a patois until Dante wrote the Divine Comedy. Any language remains a patois until people begin speaking it without shame. There can be little doubt that most exhibitions of contemporary American painting look like collections of imitations of Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso, Salvator Dali, and the Mexicans. They differ from European paintings only in subject matter. But that is as it should be. The sedulous ape is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Manet looks like Goya at times; Goya looks like Velasquez. Raphael in some of his pictures looks like Perugino. Even El Greco in some of his pictures looks like Tintoretto. To be sincere does not mean to be eccentric.

The weakness of American painting is not its similarity to European painting; it is its aimlessness. The sensibility of most Americans is not so developed that they will want to peer at a picture over a long stretch of time just to let its beauty sink into them. Few of us, moreover, ever stay home long enough to peer at anything. As for illustrations, our books are usually without pictures and the scene of our business life changes so rapidly that a contemporary event becomes quaint over night. The Mexicans faced a different problem: they had a population that apparently felt the need of intense images of social struggles. We get our news over the radio. We get our pictures at the movies. What purpose could a painter have, then, if he is painting pictures for no place? His purpose might be that of the poet, to clarify life for himself first of all, with the pious hope that by doing so he may be clarifying it for others. But that will only happen if he speaks sincerely in the language of his people. Judged by world standards, it is unlikely that painters like Mount and Bingham would stand comparison with Daumier and Pieter Breughel. But, judged by American standards, they presented clearly a vision of American life which now seems more important to us than the allegories of Blashfield or John Alexander. We may, of course, turn away from them in the future.


Twenty-five years ago it was considered singular to advocate the study of American literature in colleges. Part of this was due to snobbishness, but part to the natural feeling that one doesn’t study what one knows. After all, the study of English literature was not carried on at Oxford until fairly recent times. But a normal curiosity about the literary past not only made American college students better informed about the traditional literary figures, like the New England poets, but also helped them discover less well-known figures like Melville. Nowadays it is the exception to find a professor who is skeptical about the value of teaching American literature. To advocate the study of American art, and by ‘art’ I mean architecture, sculpture, and painting as a minimum, will seem singular now to some readers, but there is every bit as much reason for our young men and women to be familiar with that as with literature. It is no more nor less important.

We have produced few if any poets who are read by Englishmen and Frenchmen as they read their own writers. So too we have produced very few artists whose works are known and cherished abroad. But that is irrelevant. If we were to study only the great, in the sense that Æschylus and Phidias are great, we could lump all the arts into one course and be hard put to it to make it last out a scholastic year. But I am not advocating the imposition of a teacher’s taste upon his students. To begin with, it would be futile; besides it would tell the students more about their teacher than about art. I am advocating more understanding and less judgment.

We who have lived during the last half century have seen so many systems of education rise and fall that we are a little skeptical about proposing new ones. The way to reform education is by gradual pruning and cultivation, as one reforms a tree. Even President Eliot’s reform, which had unusual prestige behind it, disappeared in time. Hence I should not like to be thought of as a proposer of another educational reform. This paper is proposing an extension of the curriculum in order to satisfy a need which is expressing itself in the rise of new museums all over America, in the increased sales of books on art, in the spread of art departments in the universities, in the attention which popular magazines are giving to art. My hope is that this need has been clarified herein and that it will be satisfied in the most useful way, so that the love of art will be encouraged and that the arts will not simply open another field for pedants to devastate.

The Ph. D.’s have pretty well disgusted everyone with literature by their isolation of writers from the general current of history. They study them as a boy studies birds’ eggs, by blowing out the life that is within them first. To avoid this, it is necessary that the fine arts become an integral part of education from the lower school up, and not something that you take on Fridays for an hour. But that can be accomplished only if the teachers of history and of literature include the arts as a natural part of their courses. The growing popularity of museums will to some measure make that a normal development, but meanwhile the present generation of teachers and parents would do well to become at least aware of the current of history.

  1. The first Gothic college buildings to be erected in America are usually said to be those of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, which was founded in 1824. — AUTHOR