Issues in the Aesthetics of Educational Administration
Aesthetics is the fourth branch of philosophy. It has only recently become relevant to practitioners and scholars in educational administration, most presciently with the rise and importance of organizational culture and aesthetics emerging criticality to the success or failure of educational change and reform. This entry presents a brief overview of the nature of aesthetics in schools and educational institutions as well as a description of the actions administrators take of an aesthetic nature.
The Nature of Aesthetics
Aesthetics is grounded in the human body’s sensory experiences. It involves taste, touch, smell, perception and sound; the entire human sense-making capacity intimately interconnected to intellectual development and theorizing. It has been called “human world making” (Laird 2013, p. 49). The range of areas of aesthetics began as a focus on theories of art fusing painting, music, dance, sculpture, and poetry into a single field of philosophy in the eighteenth century. Named by Alexander Baumgarten in his Reflections of Poetry (1735), aesthetics was derived from the Greek aisthanomai which meant “to perceive” (Feagin 1999, p. 12).
Today aesthetics has greatly expanded its purview. Newly grounded theories, called somaesthetics, center on the full range of sensory experiences and self-fashioning practices including yoga, martial arts, aerobics, clothing and cosmetic fashions including jewelry and the application of body tattoos (Shusterman 2008). A study of the theory and criticism of such practices consists of pragmatic somaesthetics, especially as it relates to specific normative or prescriptive actionable contexts.
The link from this expanded perspective of aesthetics to educational administration surfaced as researchers and policy developers in the field became interested in how schools could be changed. It became obvious that change in educational settings was more than making a rational case for doing things differently. They understood that change was only partially an intellectual and rational process. It also involved how groups worked together and the norms they shared and how those norms impacted their collective behavior. Within such collectivities, individuals would be permitted or bound, overtly or tacitly, by the norms approved by the whole collectivity. This perspective came to be designated by early change agents as “the cultural perspective” (Firestone and Corbett 1988, p. 338). It is now encapsulated by the notion that “The administration of education is therefore in part the administration of culture that through its construction and allocation of aesthetic, symbolic or culture capital serves to administer and perpetuate social hierarchy. The role of educational administrators is to preside over systems and institutions that structure and allocate access to aesthetic experience in particular socially conservative ways, thus matching the possess of economic capital” (Samier et al. 1999, p. 11). Organizational culture can be considered a kind of grammar in which individual speech actions occur. It represents the “deep structure” of linguistic expression. It shapes the formulation of thought and provides a kind of coded boundary for both linguistic content and possible administrative actions.
Organizational Culture as Aesthetic Expression
Schein (1992) has indicated that there are three levels of organizational culture. Paraphrased they are: (1) artifacts which are the most visible of organizational aspect of organizational life, but which may have multiple meanings and interpretations; (2) espoused values which are comprised of goals, objectives, and philosophies as common justifications; and (3) tacit, unconscious thoughts and feelings which are the springboard of values and ultimately actions.
In schools, some artifacts would be mission statements which are sometimes posted on the walls in staffrooms or in the school’s administration foyer that encapsulate the special function or purpose of the institution. Other artifacts might be a stated educational philosophy that appears in the school’s prospectus or school website. School mottos such as “strive to excel,” “we all smile in the same language,” and “concern, love and justice” send a strong message as to what the school stands for and what it values. Yet some artifacts are hard to decipher although easily visible. For example, the selection of a school mascot or team name. What does it mean when a school says it is the home of the “Fighting Mustangs”? To an outside observer this announcement might connote an aggressive pursuit of victories in some forms of athletic or academic competition. To an insider it may connote a shared common set of values around a struggle to educate the most difficult of the pupil population being served by the school.
Espoused values usually begin with someone such as the school principal proposing a stance on addressing educational, social, philosophical, or political issues. Indeed, according to Schein (1992), this juncture is the connection between leadership and culture, the indispensable act of the school administrator considered essential for creating a framework for institutional purposing. Such values may be articulated in a vision as a condition that “ought to be” in the world or in the school. They remain simply an individual’s perspective until and unless a group moves to realize the vision to try and bring it into reality. The process of bridging from individual values to shared values involves a transformative process which moves from shared values to shared assumptions. Schein (1992) avers that not all shared assumptions survive an institutional adoption. Only those that demonstrate consistency are able to do that. Those that deal with aesthetic or moral issues are the most difficult to confirm as a shared value to become a common base of shared assumptions. They often lack accurate definition and reside in shades of meaning where ambiguity is present and discernment is slippery. However, when they reach the point where they are no longer questioned and become taken for granted assertions, the organization has worked through the third and final stage of the transformation process. At this stage, members of the group often find any other alternative assumption or value inconceivable. The values supporting these assumptions are extremely difficult if not impossible to change because to alter them threatens to destabilize the entire unit. Challenges of this sort are often considered heresies and met with defensiveness, denial, and/or social ostracism of skeptics, doubters, or violators. Administrators who depend upon the stability of their organization to survive may find their first task is to protect the social stability of their unit. The dissolution of such stability may find the administrative leader thrown into the role of a conformist and chief protector of the status quo.
A more detailed perspective of organizational culture involves the nature of the shared assumptions including how truth is determined, the nature of time and space, the nature of human nature and human activity, and the nature of human relationships. A second and important aspect of organizational culture involves the actions of the educational administrator and how that individual functions and what he/she consistently pays attention to.
There are many ways groups may discern the nature of truth. They range from received dogma based on tradition or religious absolutism, rational-legal mechanisms embedded in bureaucratic functionalism, truth based on scientific method, truth by what works as a kind of temporal pragmatism, and truth as a way of sense or world making of an aesthetic nature. In this latter category, an aesthetic competence is required for the administrator to create and apply images and symbols and to engage in and support rituals, legends, and ceremonies that formulate, fixate, and sustain social coherence and provide a context of meaning for them.
Organizational culture also hinges on shared assumptions regarding the nature of time. Some cultures are centered on the past, some primarily in the present, and some, those of the Western, industrialized world live in the future. This is the reason for such aesthetic constructs as mission and vision statements regarding the future and philosophies centered on desired states of existence or of organized performance that are embodiments of a desired not yet realized state. Such constructs serve to describe a kind of secular promised land and are found in some religious doctrines assuring one’s arrival in a heaven, nirvana, or some other utopian place. The existence of such a future desired location is then related to a possible range of actions which will result in the arrival at the sought for destination. Inevitably in many cases, the future state is described in aesthetic terms and understood in such terms. They involve perception and feelings of the senses, that is, what it will feel like when one has entered the kingdom of heaven. Such expressions of administrative aesthetics are “all children are learning” or “every child finds happiness and satisfaction with himself/herself” are sensory statements. Within the perspective of time lie related symmetries such as whether time is considered as a kind of linear ribbon or whether it is symbolically multidimensional. The phrase, “one thing at time” or “tick the box” is a monochromatic conceptualization of time, whereas simultaneous actions are polychromatic and many tasks of a different nature can be undertaken all at once. Likewise whether one is “late” or “early” or “on time” is similarly linked. Being late in monochromatic time is different than in polychromatic time.
Another dimension of administrative aesthetics involves shared assumptions regarding the nature of space. Space has a powerful symbolic meaning in organizations. Consider that the executive space is normally larger as one proceeds up the administrative hierarchy. The enlargement of space often accompanies an expansion of administrative authority. The higher one goes in the organization, the higher the spatial position on the respective floors of the organization. The chief executive often resides on the very top floor of institution. For this reason, one of the most crucial aesthetic decisions made in institutions is architectural. The construction of space is a time honored functional way to convey administrative power, status, and reach. Administrators with the most power often have corner offices with a wide view complete with more expensive furniture and art decorations than lower-paid employees who have smaller offices or perhaps simply cubicles in one large room without the benefit of complete wall to ceiling offices that ensure any form of privacy.
Another form of sensory knowledge concerns how to comport one’s body to display forms or rituals of deference and subordinate demeanor as for example who to bow to, how to disagree with a superior, and where to sit at a conference table for a meeting. These are the aesthetic dimensions of organizational life. Another form of aesthetic knowledge is distance and displacement of oneself in a spatial way within a hierarchy of power as well as the tone and loudness of one’s voice. There are several types of spatial distance involved with interpersonal conduct. The distance for intimate discourse is much closer than for normal personal discourse. Likewise, addressing a group of people in a meeting or an audience of a hundred or more is still much more extended. Such distances are not formally taught but learned in social situations. Think of a time when you were in a restaurant and parents of a child had to keep shushing a child who was speaking too loudly or making a fuss. What they are teaching is the proper spatial relationships for different types of social discourse.
Administrative Actions of an Aesthetic Nature
Organizational decision and physical structural determinations (architectural aesthetics) – Schools are “cultural artifacts” that exist long after the individuals who designed them are gone. Schools constructed on the factory model are now being replaced by schools for smaller learning communities supported by collaborative instructional practices and technology (Lackney 2011). This dimension refers to architectural and ergonomic decisions made by educational administrators about how visible, accessible, or private they wish to be to others in the organization and which types of learning/teaching arrangements are to assume priority over others.
Designated systems and routine procedures – This dimension refers to a set of actions that are not creative but essentially technical and managerial in nature but still essential for the smooth sailing of the organization. Decisions made in this area are called pragmatic aesthetics because they involve normative and prescriptive practices. They may involve such areas as student dress codes, school schedules and classroom manners, courtesies and rules. Other areas may include procedures for budget development and the allocation of resources and the development of various forms of planning, from strategic to monthly or daily.
Organizational rituals, rites, and ceremonies – In contrast to designated systems and routine procedures, this dimension refers to actions that reveal educational administrators as performers who preside over important rituals and ceremonies, shaping the organization’s purpose. Rituals reveal and communicate a range of cultural assumptions held by individuals and groups, and they serve to reinforce organizational priorities. Sometimes rituals, rites, and ceremonies can be very powerful symbolic exchanges and reinforce deeply held values shared by all.
Organizational myths, stories, and legends about people and events – This aesthetic dimension refers to the significant and inspirational stories told by educational administrators and others in the organization that celebrate personal and professional triumphs and provide a forum for reflection on challenges and adversity that later become myths and legends. These human centered stories provide a sense of shared meaning and understanding and contribute to an organization’s collective memory, becoming enshrined in its history. This permits newcomers to the organization to gain an understanding of their membership in it and to realize how they fit into longer and more cherished patterns of communal work.
Formal statements regarding philosophy, mission, and visions for the future – This aesthetic dimension refers to visible artifacts in which educational administrators work with and through others to share and negotiate meanings about the bigger purposes of the organization now and in the future. Such statements, sometimes referred to as an ideology, are necessary to explain and justify the actions of the organization. They are comprised of three essential assertions: (1) statements which illuminate the circumstances in which the organization acts and which rest on its moral values believed to be ultimate; (2) statements about the purpose of the organization and its structure; (3) statements regarding how the purposes are to be attained within the circumstances and context in which it is located. These statements serve to create unity with the organization, and “they bind the members to the organization and to one another in respect of the fact that they assert, presumably, what each member takes to be the case” (Dunham 1964, p. 17). Personal role modeling, mentoring, recruitment, and promotion – This set of aesthetic actions refers not only to educational administrators who mentor and provide support to others by setting an example through their own personal and authentic behaviors but also ensures that key practices valued by the organization are manifested in fair and transparent human resource decisions pertaining to recruitment, selection, and promotion of staff. Leaders are observed both formally and informally by subordinates. Of the two, informal observations are more potent and powerful for others to learn and emulate (Schein 1992, p. 241). The demonstrated behaviors of a leader do much to provide an example of what is actually valued and will lead to advancement in the organization. Those who are congruent with the formal statements of organizational purpose provide visible role models for their realization in the day to day operations of it. Role models are perhaps the most ancient exemplar of aesthetic teaching and coaching in the human social world.
Aesthetic Dimensions of Research in Educational Administration
In addition to the aesthetic dimensions of administrative decision making in schools and educational institutions, certain research methods about educational administration also embrace aesthetics, specifically with ethnographies and portraiture. Ethnographies are attempts at producing contextualized descriptions with the intent of deriving from them an understanding of actions taken by administrators from an insider’s perspective. The idea behind ethnography is to discern situated meaning, that is, understanding within interaction and context. Ethnography begins with observation first and then derives meaning from those observations secondly. One of the first full ethnographies of an educational administrator was written by Harry Wolcott (1973) entitled The Man in the Principal’s Office. This ethnographic mile marker was filled with aesthetic images and messages. For example, there was an entire entry on the principal as a person “behind many masks” as well as the search for stability within role ambiguity of an elementary school principal. A decade later, compelling ethnographic portraits were also produced by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot (1983) on six public and private secondary school principals. The descriptions of these leaders are vivid examples of the fecundity of aesthetic analyses to understand styles of administrative performance and communication, how social relations around ideals, values, and emotions are acted out in the symbolic and linguistic lives of educational administrators, and how their organizations are constructed through aesthetic means and activities.
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