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Feb 1, 1975

Read, “Education Through Art”

Woodcock discusses the classic book known “in Read’s own time as…his one original contribution to the discussion of anarchist tactics.”

After a somewhat meteoric course as a popular lecturer and an impresario of the arts during the 1940s and the 1950s, Herbert Read has since his death in 1968 become one of the more neglected of the generation of English writers dominated by Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. Perhaps the most curious aspect of his record has been the fate—a fate of misunderstanding—of his most influential book, Education Through Art, which is now reprinted, but which one suspects will be as little recognized as it was in Read’s own time as, apart from its other virtues, his one original contribution to the discussion of anarchist tactics.

At the time of its first appearance in 1948, the reputation of Education Through Art spread far beyond Read’s normal audience of anarchists and art lovers, and indeed influenced (though rarely in the political direction he hoped) many of the people he most wished to reach—the teachers, and their teachers in the colleges of education. Yet the apparent success of Education Through Art was both delusory and transitory, and nowadays one hears far less from educators than one did twenty years ago of the fresh insights that, as an outsider, Read brought into the field of educational method. To an extent, of course, his ideas were absorbed into current educational theory and in a rather hidden way they continue to influence teaching methods and curricula, while his book itself recedes into the honorable position of a little-read educational classic. Yet the total revolution in educational philosophy which Read hoped to provoke has not taken place; education in the arts has improved, but art itself has not, as he wished, become the guiding force in education, and consequently schools are making no better a job than their predecessors of the vital task of harmonizing both individual lives and the patterns of society through fostering a natural instinct for order.

What Read wrote as a scenario for revolution had in practice been taken as a text for reform; he became sadly aware of this, recognizing it as a kind of failure, and in the last year of his life, writing in Encounter, he remarked that few people had understood “how deeply anarchist in its orientation a work such as Education Through Art is and was intended to be,” and added that it was “of course humiliating to have to confess that its success has been in spite of this fact.”

No one aware of Read’s political inclinations had in fact any doubt of the anarchist orientation of Education Through Art. Scholarly in presentation and uninflammatory in tone, it was Read’s most originative contribution not only to libertarian theory but also to the concept of revolutionary strategy. Like the anarcho-syndicalists, Read thought he had devised a mode of action that would serve not only as the model for a free society but also as the means to prepare for and create that society.

To recognize the anarchist direction of Education Through Art is not to minimize its other importance in giving a practical shape to Read’s aesthetic philosophy, as adumbrated in Icon and Idea and The Forms of Things Unknown. It merely preserves the balance of a view that sees most of Read’s writings (including his poems and his strange romance, The Green Child) as manifestations of a unified activist philosophy, for, as Read said in an earlier book (Art and Industry):

The problem of good and bad art, of a right and wrong system of education, of a just and unjust social structure, is in the end one and the same problem.

Earlier anarchists were aware of the importance of education. They had criticized the authoritarian structure of existing systems, and had recognized the need in their own vision of society for a form of education that would change human character as we know it by removing the patterns of constraint that had characterized traditional ways of learning. But most early anarchists were men in a hurry, convinced that the state and the capitalist order could be overthrown in their lifetime by the effective use of a Bakuninist passion for destruction, so that few of them paid much attention to new educational methods, believing that these might evolve freely once the great liberation had taken place.

William Godwin, no apocalyptic insurrectionary, alone anticipated Read in stressing the revolutionary potentialities of a libertarian educational system. In Political Justice, Godwin forecast accurately how dictatorial governments would utilize systems of national education that in his day were merely planned for the future; in The Enquirer he sketched out a training based on equality between teacher and student, and the creation of an atmosphere in which the student’s initiative would be stimulated so that he would learn by desire. But between Godwin and Read anarchist writings are surprisingly lacking in original thought on education. By present-day standards, celebrated anarchist educators like Francisco Ferrer seem cautious in ideas and practice alike, and the few actual anarchist schools of the nineteenth century were more concerned with injecting revolutionary ideas into their pupils than with evolving a method that would lead toward personal integration and hence toward social harmony.

Even among modern progressive educators, like Edmund Holmes and A.S. Neill, who went far beyond the doctrinaire anarchists in both theory and experimental practice, Read felt the lack of true inspiring purpose. It was not enough to set the student free from constraint; there must be a positive principle at work if children were to be equipped to change not only their lives but also their society. The difficulty, Read suggested, lay in the fact that, while all progressive educators agreed “that in a democratic society the purpose of education should be to foster individual growth,” few of them in fact understood the nature of growth.

It is usually regarded as a process of gradual physical enlargement, of maturation, accompanied by a corresponding development of various mental faculties such as thought and understanding.

If such a view were correct, education would be a simple matter of lifting constraints to allow natural development. But Read had seen too many maladjusted children emerging from progressive schools because of such an undirected approach, and he became strongly critical of the simplistic theory of gradual and natural maturation:

We shall see that this is a wholly inadequate view of what is, in effect, a very complicated adjustment of the subjective feelings and emotions to the objective world, and that the quality of thought and understanding, and all the variations of personality and character depend to a large extent on the success or precision of this adjustment. It will be my purpose to show that the most important function of education is concerned with this psychological “orientation,” and that for this reason the education of the aesthetic sensibility is of fundamental importance.

By “the education of the aesthetic sensibility” Read does not mean the haphazardly rudimentary training in the arts customary in traditional schools. What he proposes is to utilize “all modes of self expression”—visual, verbal and aural—so as to achieve

an integral approach to reality which should be called aesthetic education—the education of those senses upon which consciousness, and ultimately the intelligence and judgment of the human individual, are based. It is only in so far as these senses are brought into harmonious and habitual relationship with the external world that an integrated personality is built up. Without such integration we get, not only the psychologically unbalanced types familiar to the psychiatrist, but what is even more disastrous from the point of view of the general good, those arbitrary systems of thought, dogmatic or rationalistic in origin, which seek in despite of the natural facts to impose a logical or an intellectual pattern on the world of organic life.

is dominated by the aesthetic impulses and it can only take form within a frame of intention that has “no other end than the basic ideals of a libertarian society; the further definition of that society

Read pointed out that in Education Through Art he was reviving in the context of a contemporary world a theory of aesthetic education, neglected by modern educators, which Plato has presented long ago in The Republic and The Laws. Like Shelly’s attitude to Plato, Read’s was always ambivalent, and while in Education Through Art, written for a general audience, he talked of Plato somewhat uncritically, in The Education of Free Men, written in the following year for an anarchist press, he was careful to point out that Plato, like Hegel, was a totalitarian, and that the Platonic insights into education had to be considered on their own merits, apart from the way Plato might choose to manipulate them in the interests of an authoritarian political order. In The Education of Free Men, indeed, Read remarks that his “criticism of Plato … would charge him with abstracting from the natural process, making of it a measured pattern, and thereby destroying its quality of spontaneity, which in the human personality is the quality of spiritual freedom.”

What read did take from Plato was the seminal idea that “there exist in the physical universe, which we experience through our senses, certain rhythms, melodies and abstract proportions which when perceived convey to the open mind a sensation of pleasure.” Such a sensation is aesthetic, and if we can associate it unconsciously with the sense of good, then we have a means to create in the lives of men a harmony and a proportion analogous to what exists in the natural world. Of course, as it appears in Education Through Art, this basic idea is embroidered and sustained by Read’s adaptations of current anthropological and psychoanalytical theories, and it is strengthened by deep personal urges which I have discussed inHerbert Read: The Source and the Stream, and which there is no space to outline here. The important thing to consider now is the fact that, like Plato, Read sees his aesthetic education not in isolation but as an integral part of a philosophy of life, and also as part of a scenario of social change. In other words, it is relevant only insofar as it leads toward the free society envisioned by the anarchists.

Education Through Art is in fact, with the exception of Oscar Wilde’s curious pamphlet, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, the first and certainly the main guide to the practical and political application of an aesthetic philosophy. But aestheticism is here transformed from an airy Yellow Nineties fantasy of art for art’s sake into a utilitarian doctrine of art for life’s sake, with some emphasis on its inevitable corollary, life for art’s sake. We are presented with a method that will nurture the child in his spontaneous searchings after form, whether they take the visible shape of artifacts or are manifested less obviously in the disciplines of games; we are given a chart by which the passages of adolescence can be safely navigated, without the destruction of sensibility, by firmly maintaining the primacy of the aesthetic element, so that education through the intelligence never triumphs over the education through the senses which is necessary if men are to live in tune with the harmonies of the natural world.

Much in the code of conduct that ensues—the lack of constraint, the absence of moralism, and even the concepts of good and evil, the relation of collaboration between teacher and child, et cetera—is not in itself strikingly different from the practice of free schools established before Education Through Art was written, but it can only become fully effective, Read insists, if. every hour of the day becoming apparent as we progress from stage to stage, for the final stage of the educational system is not the grammar school, or the technical college, or the university, but the society itself.”

Read looked to the future when there would be no barrier between work and education, which would naturally interflow. If Education Through Art is dedicated to the protection of the child’s sensibility, the later essay which is the title piece to hisThe Redemption of the Robot deals with the salvaging of the adult whose sensibility has been damaged by a technological civilization; it can be done only by filling his life “with the motives and discipline of a creative civilization”; in other words, by boldly seizing upon the leisure produced by automation to create a new and popular art in rivalry with the machine.

To appreciate fully the consequences of such a revolution in education, we must turn to Read’s more general works on anarchist theory and practice, which are highly concerned with the workings of a society that will combine the virtues of harmony and spontaneity, of form and expression. As for the immediate prospect in Read’s eyes (or perhaps rather in the eyes of his hope), it is effectively summarized in what seems to me the salient paragraph of the final chapter of Education Through Art:

The most a democratic philosopher can hope to do is to inspire a sufficient number of effective fellow citizens with his idealism—to persuade them of the truth of his ideas. The effective among his fellow citizens are those who are organized into corporations or associations for a functional purpose, and in our particular case, this would mean the general body of the teachers and administrators of the educational system. If the thought within such a syndicate could change, a change in practice would inevitably follow; and their practice would gradually react upon the whole body of the community. How quick and how effective such a gradual process can be, when it is an educational process, was clearly demonstrated by the authoritarian educational policies established in our time in Russia and Germany. Though a revolution may at first be guaranteed only by force, by means of education it can in ten years be founded on conviction, and in twenty years it will have become an unconscious tradition. It follows that a democratic method of education is the only guarantee of a democratic revolution; indeed, to introduce a democratic method of education is the only necessary revolution.

Here Read clearly presents “education through art” as a libertarian strategy aimed at revolutionary changes in society, which he claims to be better than the outdated strategies of violent insurrection; it is to be carried out by those who, if they wish, can be society’s most influential group of workers—the teachers. What he in fact proposes is a practical way of achieving that change of heart which has haunted the pacifist-moralist current of the liberation tradition, running from Winstanley in the seventeenth century, through Godwin and Tolstoy, to Read and Gandhi in our own age. In fact, as we know, neither the 20 years that Read demanded for his revolution to be complete, nor the 10 that would be needed for it to be assured, have been granted. Instead, having been taken up piecemeal by institutional educators, his ideas have suffered an ironic fate; they have been used in Mithriadic doses to prolong the life rather than to bring the end of that continuing educational system, as William Godwin had earlier prophesied, so potently assures in all its changing methods the survival of a society authoritarian in both form and mind. ©1974, Nation Associates, Inc., Reviewed by George Woodcock / Education (328 pages) / LR Price $4.95