Deweyan multicultural democracy, Rortian solidarity, and the popular arts: Krumping into presence

Seltzer-Kelly, D., Westwod, J., & Pena-Guzeman, D. (2010). Deweyan multicultural democracy, Rortian solidarity, and the popular arts: Krumping into presence. Studies in Philosophy & Education, 29(1), 441-457.

Abstract:

The teacher-researcher and a team of research assistants used a case study method to investigate the effectiveness of an art history course for teaching multicultural understanding to college students. The teacher-researcher designed an aesthetic theory course drawing on the philosophies of John Dewey, who believed exposure to artistic artifacts from diverse cultures built appreciation for the lived experience of others, and Richard Rorty, who postulated that artistic documentations of societal cruelty would spark efforts toward kindness in viewers. The course used popular arts and works well established in the artistic canon to introduce cross-cultural appreciation. The teacher-researcher and her research assistants administered anonymous surveys to assess student attitudes toward diversity throughout their participation in the course. Additionally, the teacher-researcher collected data through reflections upon the ways she saw students’ understandings emerge through their papers, exams, and comments during class. The research team found that students gradually shifted from a belief in color-blind multiculturalism (considering racism as a thing of the past) to a more nuanced interpretation of intercultural relations and society’s continued challenges. This finding suggests that art history can provide a valuable tool for understanding and comparing cultures in a deep and sensitive manner.

Key Findings:

  • Art history lessons provoked deep, and sometimes uncomfortable, discussions among students comparing cultures and their aesthetic value.
  • Popular arts may be particularly effective for provoking intercultural discussions among students due to their relevance to students’ lived experiences. For instance, the urban street dance known as “krumping” caused students in the study to question their ability to fully understand the minority experience in America.
  • Students in this study understood art as culture. They readily referred to artists as interpreters of cultural distinctions, and viewed artistic products as a way to access and understand diversity. As a result, they were able to analyze the values and expressions of distinct cultures by referring to individual artists instead of relying on stereotypes.

Significance of the Findings:

Practitioners and advocates have long cited the power of the arts to teach multicultural understanding, but lacked empirical studies to back up the claim. This study builds a case for linking art education to appreciation for diversity. Cautious student responses actively resist portraying prejudice from the beginning of the study, calling the need for multicultural education into question. However, students eventually admit an inability to understand the art forms of other cultures. This moment of critical self-awareness, when students see themselves as complicated and limited beings, may be the uncomfortable beginning of deep multicultural understanding. The findings of this study reveal the complexity of what valuing diversity looks like and how it can be taught.

Methodology:

In this study, the teacher-researcher conducted action research, using her classroom as a laboratory. She designed and taught a course at the University of Nevada intended to scaffold students’ comprehension of the diverse cultural forces shaping art history. She, along with a team of researchers assistants, measured the curriculum’s effectiveness in a case study of two course sections comprised mainly of white and Hispanic 18-20 year olds. The research team administered five rounds of anonymous surveys with open-ended questions. The teacher-researcher collected qualitative data on how she saw students’ understandings emerge through their papers, comments during class, and exams. The research team coded responses by theme and compared them for frequency of occurrence. Many direct quotes appear within the report to preserve the original voice and perspective of the study participants.

Limitations of the Research:

Language used in this study’s narrative refers to dense philosophical references, which may confound non-academic readers. However, the theoretical background information allows for thorough understanding of the nuanced data analysis. The authors candidly present the study’s limitations and refer to findings as the beginnings of understanding, rather than absolute answers; however, studying one’s own professional practice has the potential to lead to bias in data analysis. The research team cites the complexity of qualitative analysis and the small, somewhat homogenous sample group as barriers to generalizing the findings for larger populations. Furthermore, the anonymous surveys failed to track individual student respondents from one round of surveys to the next. This design prevented the researchers from tracing evolution of thought on an individual basis.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How might art history contribute to intercultural understanding among younger students?