Trying to be at home in the world: New parameters for art education

Empty classroom of the Sophie Rosenthal Primary School, The Netherlands, 1913. On the blackboard is written:  Arbeid adelt [There is nobility in labour]. Photo: Nationaal Archief/Collectie Spaarnestad/Het Leven/Fotograaf orbekend
Empty classroom of the Sophie Rosenthal Primary School, The Netherlands, 1913. On the blackboard is written:  Arbeid adelt [There is nobility in labour]. Photo: Nationaal Archief/Collectie Spaarnestad/Het Leven/Fotograaf orbekend

In my short book Letting Art Teach,[1] I try to respond to what I see as a double crisis in art education. One part of this crisis has to do with the disappearance of art from art education – something that is visible in the ongoing instrumentalisation of the arts in education. The other part of the crisis has to do with the disappearance of education from contemporary art education – something that is visible in what I refer to as “expressivist” approaches to art. In response to these developments I outline a “world-centred” approach. This approach is neither focused on what children should learn (knowledge or skills) nor on how they should develop and who they should become (the question of identity), but rather puts the question of human existence – the question of what it means to live one’s life, and to live it well – at the very heart of art education.

Such a move is not very popular in contemporary educational debates, where there is a strong tendency to see education in terms of the production of a small set of measurable “learning outcomes” – a rather bizarre phrase, hence the quotation marks – in the service of economic competitiveness in the global marketplace. This systemic educational myopia, strongly pushed by organisations such as the OECD and the World Bank, but also by misguided initiatives that forefront 21st‑century skills, seems to deny that existential questions matter for education, other than in terms of, say, employability and economic productivity. But that doesn’t make such questions go away. We could even say that the big questions of human existence – the democratic question of living together defined by plurality and the ecological question of living in sustainable ways – are becoming more urgent by the day. And it is perhaps ironic that it’s young people who are reminding us of the urgency of what is at stake here (think, for example, of the school strikes for the climate).

If education takes its existential orientation seriously, it has to centre on the world – rather than on the curriculum or the child – because it is only there, in the world, with others, that we can actually live our lives. This is not a matter for our decision; rather, we are thrown into the world. We become aware of ourselves in the world – not before or outside of it. The world, natural and social, can be beautiful and accommodating, but it can also be the opposite: a difficult and challenging place. The existential challenge, so we might say, is not to run away from the world but to try to be at home in it, to use the phrase from Hannah Arendt.[2] Trying to be at home in the world articulates the existential predicament, because the world is precisely not (our) home but is what we encounter when we leave our home, so to speak. But it is there that we need to try to be – and this is a truly lifelong challenge, that won’t go away and cannot be resolved for once and for all but returns again and again in always new and unpredictable ways. To “reconcile ourselves to reality,” to use another phrase from Arendt, means that the challenge is to stay “with” the world, and neither to conquer it not to shy away from it. So, what, then, about education? And what about art?

One way in which the arts play a role in contemporary education is because of its alleged usefulness. We hear, and research apparently confirms this, that music is useful, for example, because it increases students’ cognitive performance – and the evidence is often delivered by looking into the brain. We hear that drama is useful because it increases empathy, morality and pro‑social behaviour. We hear that the fine arts are useful because they stimulate creativity and imagination. And so on. While it may seem that contemporary education is genuinely interested in the arts, the problem is that it is not the arts themselves which provides the focus of interest, but what the arts bring about or, more precisely, what the arts produce. The problem with such instrumental justifications is that as soon as another way of increasing performance, promoting empathy, stimulating creativity and so on is found – more importantly, a way that is quicker and cheaper – art may be on its way out again, if it was ever “in” in the first place. Instrumental justifications for the arts also clearly reveal curricular and societal hierarchies – while much seems to be invested in researching whether music makes kids better at mathematics, the question whether mathematics makes children into better musicians is not on the radar.

One might conclude that the only way to resist instrumental justifications for the arts in education is by means of the art for art’s sake argument – that art is there for its own sake, not because it is useful for something else. But such a response remains caught in instrumentality and its negation, whereas the real issue concerns the question whether education can be properly understood in terms of the production of particular outcomes – both whether the point of education is to bring about particular outcomes and whether the dynamics of education can be understood as production. This is what philosophers refer to as a “category mistake,” that is, the application of the wrong category on a particular reality. After all, a person who has received education is not a thing that is produced, but a human being with an altered outlook, a human being who exists differently in the world. Rather, therefore, than to ask what art education produces, we should ask what art education means for those who have encountered it. And rather than to ask what art education makes – in the sense of production – we should ask what art education makes possible.

First lesson page from an early edition of John Amos Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus, 1658. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
First lesson page from an early edition of John Amos Comenius, Orbis Sensualium Pictus, 1658. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

It is here that a second problem emerges, because in addition to instrumental justifications for the arts in education, the ongoing pressure to focus education narrowly on the production of a small set of measurable learning outcomes has led to a second reason why the arts should have a place in education: namely to allow children and young people to express their own voice, construct their own meanings, be creative, develop their talents and reveal their unique identity. Such an expressivist or child-centred response to one-sided curriculum-centred education makes sense, and there is no doubt that the arts can make a significant contribution here. But there is one question that appears to be often – and perhaps systematically – overlooked, which is the question “What if?.”

What if the voice that is expressed is racist? What if the creativity that emerges is destructive? What if the identity that is revealed is entirely ego-centric? Here we encounter an important limit to expressivist justifications for the arts in education, because the real educational work is not to make expression possible – to let a thousand flowers grow, so to speak – but to stage the encounter between what is expressed and the world within which this expression seeks to arrive, to put it in general terms. The task of education is not just to let everything emerge, but to constantly ask the question whether and in what ways what emerges is going to help children and young people in leading their lives well in the world, or whether what emerges is going to hinder.

This is not a question to which there is one answer; rather, each new situation asks us to consider this question again. Moreover, it is not a question to which adults and educators should give the answer. The educational work is to try to make this a living question in the lives of children and young people themselves. The educational task, to put it differently, is that of arousing a desire in children and young people for wanting to be in the world, and for trying to be there, as I will discuss below, in a grown-up way.[3] Again, world-centred. What, then, might it mean to be in the world; to exist in and with the world? Looking at it from the perspectives of our initiatives – from what we wish to bring into the world, which includes the desire to bring ourselves into the world – we do know that the world often accommodates our initiatives and resonates with them. But there will come a point, sooner or later, when this is not the case; when the world offers resistance to our initiatives.

The experience of resistance is of crucial importance in our lives because it reveals that the world is not a construction or phantasy, but exists independently from us, in its own “integrity.” The encounter with resistance is frustrating as it blocks our intended course of action. One way to handle this frustration is to push harder – figuratively or literally in – order to make sure that our initiatives will arrive. Sometimes this is indeed what is needed, but there is a risk that if we push too hard, if we persist too long, that we destroy the very world in which we seek to arrive. There is, to put it differently, always the risk of world-destruction. But the opposite is also possible: that in response to the frustration of meeting resistance we withdraw, we step back, we give up. Again, this is sometimes really important in order to allow space for the world outside of us. But if we go too far, if we withdraw completely, we destroy the possibility for being in the world. The risk we encounter at this end, therefore, is that of self-destruction.

This begins to show that being in the world is not a matter of stepping into a context, so to speak, but rather has to do with the challenge of staying in the difficult “middle ground” between (the risk of) world-destruction and (the risk of) self-destruction. Existing in this middle ground can be understood as dialogue, as long as we do not think of dialogue as conversation but as an existential form, the way of staying with, so to speak. Dialogue, unlike a competition, has no winners and knows no end. It is a truly lifelong challenge and hence a truly existential challenge. The difficult middle ground between world-destruction and self-destruction is an educational space because this space teaches us something; namely, that we are not alone, that we do not exist just in our thoughts and consciousness, but in and with the world.

It is precisely here that the arts can enter the picture again; not just as an instrument for producing something else or as a mode of expression that is just about the self, but precisely through the multiplicity of ways in which we try to be in dialogue with the world. The arts as ways in which we try to figure out what this world is, what we are in relation to it, and in what ways and by what means we can keep ourselves in the middle ground, rather than ending up in one of the extremes. This also requires that we try to get closer to these extremes in order to find out what we encounter there, and this is what the arts (can) do as well. Along these lines, then, art appears as the ongoing existential challenge of trying to be in and with the world, of trying to be at home in the world.

Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare [Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt], action on 26 November 1965 at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf. Photo: Ute Klophaus © Joseph Beuys/VG Bild-Kunst, Copyright Agency 2019
Joseph Beuys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare [Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt], action on 26 November 1965 at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf. Photo: Ute Klophaus © Joseph Beuys/VG Bild-Kunst, Copyright Agency 2019

Art, to put it briefly, is this existential dialogue. The preceding remarks about what it means to exist in and with the world already make clear that existing in the world is not a matter of doing what one wants to do – the world as a neoliberal playground, the world as a shop where one just walks in to get what one wants – but is about the challenge to come to terms with the integrity of this space. To subject ourselves completely to what is other, is to come into dialogue, perhaps like (a) dance. The quality of such a way of existing is what I refer to as an idea of grown-up-ness. This is an awkward expression, not just because of the “ness” but also because “grown-up” suggests that we achieve this quality at the end of a process of growth or development.

This is indeed how educators and developmental psychologist often speak about grown-up-ness. In response I wish to propose an existential redefinition of grown-up-ness, seeing it as a way in which we try to exist – in the world, as the French educational scholar Philippe Meirieu puts it, without putting oneself in the centre of the world.[4] Seeing grown-up-ness in existential terms also helps to acknowledge that this is not something that adults are always capable of and that infants, by definition, are incapable of. The opposite is often the case – the many adults who are constantly putting or thinking themselves in the centre of the world; the impressive examples of children and young people who are able to be with the world in a truly ex-centric way.

What we encounter here is a crucial educational question, namely the question as to whether what I desire, or whether what I encounter in myself as a desire – since where our desires come from is a rather open question – is what I should be desiring. Whether what I desire is going to help or hinder in living my life well, with others, on a planet that only has a limited capacity for meeting our desires. Trying to exist in a grown-up way is therefore not about running behind your desires, nor about getting rid of your desires, as we need desire in order to manage to stay in the world, to stay in the difficult middle ground. This is why Gayatri Spivak’s definition of education as the uncoercive rearrangement of desires is so very helpful and precise – also because it highlights that in the end we can never force our children and our students, nor can we tell them what they should be desiring.[5] Rather, we should provide them with ways of “working through” their desires; ways of meeting their desires, ways of meeting the world in relation to their desires, selecting, rejecting and transforming their desires.

Joseph Beuys, The Pack, 1976. Photo: A. Hensmanns. Courtesy Neue Galerie, Kassel. © Joseph Beuys/VG Bild-Kunst, Copyright Agency 2019
Joseph Beuys, The Pack, 1976. Photo: A. Hensmanns. Courtesy Neue Galerie, Kassel. © Joseph Beuys/VG Bild-Kunst, Copyright Agency 2019

And again, this is where art enters the scene – art is this ongoing encounter with, exploration and transformation of our desires, in light of our ongoing existential dialogue with the world. Art works on our desires; art is desirable; and art provides many forms for transforming our desires, for encountering the world differently and encountering ourselves differently in this encounter. Here, I have been working towards an account of education that is thoroughly existential – that is not about the acquisition of knowledge and skills to conquer the world, but that puts the challenge of trying to be at home in the world at its centre. Art, so I have suggested, works not in order to produce things but in that it gives form to and is this ongoing, never-ending existential challenge. In such a world-centred approach both education and art can themselves be “at home,” not driven out, instrumentalised or trivialised by concerns external to them.

What does this mean for art education? I wish to suggest that a world-centred approach highlights three very specific qualities of the educational work – interruption, suspension and sustenance; qualities that are the very opposite of where contemporary education seems to be going. If education is about arousing a desire in children and young people for wanting to exist in the world in a grown-up way, it is first of all important that they can truly meet the world, in its material integrity, not as a theory or idea. This highlights that world-centred education is by necessity interruptive. It interrupts the tendency to be just with oneself; it interrupts our desires; it interrupts our identity – and it does all this not to destroy the student but precisely to turn them towards the world and to allow the world to enter their lives.

World-centred education offers the student resistance precisely in order to “draw” the student into dialogue with the world. That education interrupts and should interrupt goes against the current tendency to make education into an entirely smooth experience, or one that is completely personalised to the individual students, so that they can move through the curriculum without friction. Such an education keeps students away from the world—it keeps them “at home.” Meeting the world, and meeting oneself and one’s desires in relation to the world, is one thing. Working through this, encountering one’s desires, sifting through them, finding forms for transformation and achieving a different relation with the world requires time—time to meet the world, time to meet oneself, time to work through what one encounters, time to find new forms, and so on. This is why education, if it is world‑centred, is a matter of suspension: of slowing down, of giving time, and of finding and creating forms that help in trying to come and stay in dialogue with what we encounter outside of ourselves.

Again, this goes against the fashionable idea that the faster students go through the curriculum, the better and more successful they are. Yes, one can move fast on a single track – particularly if the track is already laid-out-but a single track is not the world and the faster one moves the fewer opportunities there will be for encountering anything at all. Interruption and suspension both hint at what it means to encourage children and young people to stay in the middle ground, a middle ground which I have characterised as difficult, both because of the risks that always surround the middle ground, and because the middle ground is where we are outside of our home, outside of our being-just-with-ourselves.

Education should provide the sustenance – support and nourishment – so that it becomes possible, bearable, to stay in the middle ground. If interruption, suspension and sustenance are the qualities of world-centred education it is, in my view, not too difficult to see where art can enter. Art, after all, interrupts, not in order to destroy but in order to pull us towards the world, to bring us into dialogue with what and who we are not. Art slows down; art provides the time and many forms in which we can meet our desires, work through them, invent ways of being in and with the world. And art can provide sustenance, can provide support and nourishment for staying in the middle ground. Art, in this sense, is not just the support for world-centred education, art is world-centred education.

One may think that the approach to art education, the principles of which I have tried to outline in this text, will help students to come to a better understanding of the world and their place in it. But this is not the orientation I have been pursuing. This is not just because understanding is only such a small part of what it means to exist in and with the world, but also because understanding in a sense puts the one who wishes to understand before the world and thus makes the world into an object of understanding. I am more interested in the opposite direction, where the first question is not “How can I understand?” or “How can I make sense?” but where everything begins with questions such as: “What is this asking of me?,” “What is this trying to say to me?,” or “What is this trying to teach me?.”

I hope that in this contribution I have managed to communicate a different outlook, and a different way to think and do art education: one that not just takes the challenge of human existence seriously but that, in doing so, provides a genuine “home” for art – which is perhaps the same as saying that it is art that can provide a genuine “home” for world‑centred education.


  1. ^ Gert Biesta, Letting Art Teach, Arnhem: ArtEZ Press, 2017. 
  2. ^ Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and politics (the difficulties of understanding)” in Jerome Kohn (ed.), Essays in Understanding 1930–1954, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1994, pp. 203–327.
  3. ^ Gert Biesta, The Rediscovery of Teaching, London/New York: Routledge, 2017.  
  4. ^ Philippe Meirieu, Pédagogie: Le devoir de résister [Education: The Duty to Resist], Issy-les-Moulineaux : ESF éditeur, 2007.
  5. ^ Gayatri Spivak, “Righting the Wrongs”, South Atlantic Quarterly 103(2/3), 2004, pp. 523–81.

Gert Biesta is Professor of Public Education at Maynooth University Ireland, Professorial Fellow for Educational Theory and Pedagogy at the University of Edinburgh, and NIVOZ Professor for Education at the University of Humanistic Studies, the Netherlands. He writes about the theory and philosophy of education. Recent books include Obstinate Education: Reconnecting School and Society (2019); The Rediscovery of Teaching (2017).