Restoring aesthetic experiences in the school curriculum: The legacy of Rosenblatt’s transactional theory from Literature as Exploration
Connell, Jeanne M
In her seminal work, Literature as Exploration, literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt suggests that: “literary experiences might be made the very core of the kind of educational process needed in a democracy” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 274). How can the study of literature contribute to a learning process that is central to the democratic aims of the school curriculum? Within the school curriculum, should literary experiences be considered as crucial to educating citizens as are discipline-based studies such as history, human development, political science, and economics? The current paper explores Rosenblatt’s philosophy and her literary theory that are the foundations for answering these questions.
Rosenblatt considered these questions when she completed her role as an advisor for a Progressive Education Association study. The project developed a set of textbooks on human relations for adolescents that incorporated the latest advances in sociology and psychology of this time period. These discipline-based textbooks were to be written in a popular style to enhance their appeal and usefulness to young adults. At the end of the project, Rosenblatt concluded that discussions of human relations that took place in literature classes could perform a distinctive and vital function in the education of citizens in a democracy. Rosenblatt (1983) contends:
If we only do justice to the potentialities inherent in literature itself, we can make a vital social contribution… [a student] can gain heightened sensitivity to the needs and problems of others remote from him in temperament, in space, or in social environment; he can develop a greater imaginative capacity to grasp abstract laws or political and social theories for actual human lives, (p. 274)
Rosenblatt’s observations about the potential of literature and the arts to contribute in a unique way to the broader humanistic aims of schooling led her to write Literature as Exploration in 1938. This book contains a theoretical explanation of her transactional theory of reading within a practical handbook for classroom teachers. In a chapter added in a later edition, Rosenblatt summarizes her earlier efforts: “This book has attempted to reveal how much the experience and study of literature have to offer that is relevant to the crucial needs of personalities involved in the conflicts and stresses in life in our changing society” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 274).1
Rosenblatt’s central message to educators is that aesthetic experiences can foster a critical “linkage between intellectual perception and emotional drive that is essential to any vital learning process” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 182). While Rosenblatt readily acknowledges that the scientific approach has its own particular merit in the learning process, she advocates the need for both artistic and scientific approaches to enrich a student’s learning (Karolides, 1999, p. 161). Rosenblatt contends that aesthetic experiences, particularly those experiences with a wide range of diverse literary texts, could lead a student to insights into human relations that might be “more personally felt, perhaps more lasting” than when only presented through more impersonal scientific presentations (Karolides, 1999, p. 161). Thus, Rosenblatt stresses the complementary character of aesthetic experience and intellectual development.2 For Rosenblatt aesthetic experiences provide the groundwork for intellectual development. While aesthetic experiences provide a necessary condition for beginning intellectual development, it is not sufficient. For learning to take place, a student must clarify and enlarge his or her initial personal response to the work.
In addition to linking intellectual perception and emotional drives at a personal level and to providing students with an opportunity for critical reflection, literary study taught from a transactional perspective also provides students with lived-through experiences that can connect them in a unique way with the emotions, needs, problems, and aspirations of other human beings. Rosenblatt believes that aesthetic experiences obtained through the study of literary texts can foster “the kind of imagination needed in a democracy-the ability to participate in the needs and aspirations of other personalities and to envision the effect of our actions on their lives” (1983, p. 222). For Rosenblatt, exploration of these connections to human development and human relationships in the study of literature and the arts promote the development of broad humanistic goals of public schooling critical to maintaining and improving our democratic society.
This paper highlights Rosenblatt’s recommendations for reforming the learning process in classrooms, that ultimately serves democracy by the kinds of values, habits, and knowledge its future citizens develop through their school experiences. The key to reforming the learning process, according to Rosenblatt, rests with the kind of experiences students have in the classroom. Literature As Exploration focuses specifically on promoting aesthetic experiences in the classroom by defining the distinguishing features of aesthetic experiences and its benefits to the broader aims of the school curriculum, and by providing a broad range of pedagogical advice to teachers. Pedagogy is intimately connected to theory, and the way that students approach a particular work is crucial to fostering aesthetic experiences.
Even though Literature as Exploration was published over sixty years ago, this work provides us with one of Rosenblatt’s more comprehensive discussions of the link between aesthetic experiences and the broader humanistic goals of the school curriculum. The current paper argues that Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of the literary work, first articulated in this book, remains relevant for contemporary educators.3 A transactional perspective highlights the dynamic, generative relationship between the reader and the text in the formation of meaning (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 35). This dynamic relationship between reader and text continues to be the center of Rosenblatt’s transactional view. In a recent interview, Rosenblatt reiterated its fundamental importance. Rosenblatt argues that the core of her transactional theory is the focus on relations-the reader and the text, the reader and the author, and groups of readers-that all involve a dynamic exchange in the process of making meaning (Karolides, 1999, p. 160).
This paper first provides a brief look at Rosenblatt’s career in literary theory and highlights the key features of Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading. Next, the paper provides a detailed examination of three of the key distinguishing features of aesthetic experiences. Finally, the paper examines how aesthetic experiences hold potential for broader use in the school curriculum.
Rosenblatt’s Career Path
Literature as Exploration is significant because it provides the beginning point for Rosenblatt’s career as a literary theorist committed to changing the way reading and literature are taught in schools. Rosenblatt’s academic career began in 1921 as an undergraduate in an experimental honors program at Barnard College. At Barnard, she read widely in English and American literature, philosophy, as well as in the new social sciences, particularly psychology, sociology, and anthropology. After completing her undergraduate degree, Rosenblatt enrolled as a graduate student in comparative literature, and she took advanced courses in anthropology. Upon completion of her Ph.D., she returned to Barnard College and taught English for several years before being appointed to the Commission on Human Relations in 1935, a project funded by the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. These experiences set the stage for the writing of Literature as Exploration.4
While primarily known as a literary theorist, Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading draws heavily on epistemological constructs from pragmatic philosophy, including Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. From the work of John Dewey, Rosenblatt adopted the term “transaction,” which implies that the “self ‘ of the reader and the text are more flexible, taking on their character during the process of reading and focusing on the reader’s personal lived-through experience. Rosenblatt’s emphasis on the organic relationship between reader and text draws upon Dewey’s epistemological position that both knower and known constitute, and are constituted by, the process of inquiry.5 Rosenblatt’s theory is arguably one of the more successful responses to Dewey’s call for an educational theory to be built upon a permanent frame of reference to the organic nature of experience. Her theory also promotes Dewey’s desire for more democratic interactions within the classroom by encouraging students and teachers to learn from each other as texts are examined and discussed over time.
In a career that began during the height of the progressive education era and has now spanned over seven decades, Rosenblatt’s work contributed significantly to changing the course of literary theory and how literature is taught in schools.6 Literary theory has undergone dramatic changes due in large part to the emergence of reader response theory, a theory first pioneered by Rosenblatt. While text-based literary theories dominated until the 1960s, in the past three decades text-based theories have been challenged effectively by a wide range of reader-based positions. Noted literary theorist Wayne Booth calls Rosenblatt’s influence on the field “powerful” (Karolides, 1999, p. 159), and literary scholar John Willinsky argues that Rosenblatt is one of four key theorists influencing how literature is taught in secondary schools today (Willinsky, 1991, p. 1).
Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory of Reading
While Rosenblatt suggests that literary study might be made the very core of the educational process needed in a democracy, her primary aim is to reform the area of literary study. Early twentieth century literary theory promoted text-based approaches that resulted in classrooms being limited in possibilities for aesthetic experiences by readers. During this period, the traditional English curriculum consisted of “the standard book list of so-called classics, the emphasis on generalized interpretations and paraphrases, the organization by historical periods and genres, [and] a barrage of questions to be answered about each work” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. vii). The primary goals focused on inducting students into the culture’s literary heritage and on promoting understanding of literary techniques of these classic texts.
These traditional approaches, according to Rosenblatt, undermine literature’s unique potential for enabling aesthetic experiences by students. Traditional approaches promote the invisibility of the reader, “for in many English classes today the instructor never even glimpses at the student’s personal sense of the work discussed” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 61). This inattention to the student’s responses to the text leads the student to view literature as remote and abstract rather than as an opportunity for vital experiences. In a transactional theory, the “reader counts for at least as much as the book or poem itself; he responds to some of its aspects and not others; he finds it refreshing and stimulating, or barren and unrewarding” (p. v).7 Later she writes: “the personal contribution of the reader is an essential element of any vital reading of literature” (p. 108). This need for the reader’s personal response justifies the demand that the teacher create a setting that makes it possible for the student to have a spontaneous response to literature.
A free, spontaneous response to literature, however, is just the first step ina process of growth towards both understanding personal response to literary texts and gaining a fuller, more critical response to the text. The process of growth occurs as students follow their spontaneous responses with further reflection, discussions with other students and the teacher, and additional readings. Rosenblatt provides an example ofthis transactional approach in a freshman literature class at a women’s college. After reading Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, students first provide their initial reactions to Nora’s plight as a wife totally dependent upon her husband. After these initial responses are shared, students engage in discussions that lead them to reflect further on the play’s significance. They raise questions about the legal and political rights of women in the nineteenth century, they discuss the emancipation of women and its impact on relationships within the family, they analyze the author’s purposes as well as form and techniques, and they debate the degree to which the individual is shaped by numerous social factors. Rosenblatt contends that these discussions have value because students raised these questions themselves, based on their own interpretations. When challenged to establish the validity of their own interpretations, students are stimulated both to examine the text more closely and to scrutinize the adequacy of their own past experiences and basic assumptions. These discussions lead students “to acquire various types of knowledge-literary and social history, biography, philosophy, psychology, anthropology”-that may deepen their understanding of the work” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 124).
Thus, Rosenblatt sees a place in literature classes for academic discussions of literary style, various literary theories, background materials, information about authors, historical and social history of the time period, but only after the initial personal response of the reader occurs (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 66). These discussions are best viewed as building upon aesthetic experiences of readers rather than as the end objective of study as traditional practices of this time period dictated. Rosenblatt finds that these traditional practices have limited effects: “as long as an artificial and pedantic notion of literary culture persists, students will continue in their indifference to the great works of the past and present” (p. 65). In contrast, a transactional view encourages the student to respond initially in an intimate and spontaneous way. This personal response provides the beginning of a long complex learning process where a “student can clarify and enlarge his response to the work” (p. 76).
If, as Rosenblatt contends, aesthetic experiences make a unique contribution in service of broader humanistic goals of the school curriculum, then understanding the features of aesthetic experiences is a necessary first step in the process of tapping this potentially powerful resource for democracy. We now turn to a more detailed examination of the distinguishing features of aesthetic experiences contained in Literature As Exploration.
Distinguishing Features of Aesthetic Experiences
Rosenblatt seeks to provide teachers with an understanding of the distinguishing features of aesthetic experiences so that aesthetic experiences can be nurtured in the school curriculum. In Literature as Exploration, Rosenblatt supplies practitioners with practical suggestions to aid them in modifying their approaches to the teaching of reading and the study of literature. Aesthetic experiences, according to Rosenblatt, produce a dual value. They can yield the kind of fulfillment which “can be enjoyed in itself-and at the same time have a social origin and social effect” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 24). Rosenblatt contends that no contradiction should exist between the two phases of art-its aesthetic value and its potential for having a powerful social effect. These two interdependent phases of art are inextricably interrelated (p. 23).
For those teachers in the arts, Rosenblatt’s aim is to draw attention to aesthetic experiences by emphasizing a generative relationship between the student and the work of art. Rosenblatt advises teachers to direct their attention toward a new literary paradigm: “Our eyes must always be directed toward that dynamic interaction between the work of art and the personality of the reader” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 273). Rosenblatt recognizes that the personal nature of the learning process places a decided responsibility upon the teachers (p. 247). When teachers apply Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading to the study of literature, literature becomes a mode of personal life experience.
If the act of reading literature is to become a mode of personal life experience then Rosenblatt’s chosen metaphor for literature is an appropriate one. As the title of her first work on a transactional theory of the literary works suggests, the experience of literature resembles the act of exploration. The primary role for the reader is the creation of the “literary work” from the lived-through experience with a literary text. While maintaining an emphasis on the relational quality of the reading process, Rosenblatt stresses the active role of the reader. She writes: “the experience of literature, far from being for the reader a passive process of absorption, is a form of intense personal activity” (p. v). A transactional perspective foregrounds the lived-through experience of the reader as he or she encounters a text. The reader gains through literature “not so much additional information as additional experience. New understanding is conveyed to them dynamically and personally. Literature provides a living-through, not simply knowledge about” (p. 38). Attention to lived-through or aesthetic experiences are fundamental to defining the general character of a transactional perspective.
According to Rosenblatt’s transactional perspective, aperson becomes a reader by virtue of activity in relationship to a text by actively organizing a set of verbal symbols. Literary texts embody verbal stimuli toward a special kind of intense and ordered experience-sensuous, intellectual, emotional-out of which social insights might arise (1983, pp. 31-32). Rosenblatt states (1983):
Through the work of art, our habitual responses, our preoccupations and desires, may be given added significance. They will be related to the emotional and sensuous structure created by the author, and they will be brought into organic connection with broader and deeper streams of thought and feelings. Out of this will arise a wider perspective and are adjustment ofthe framework of values with which to meet further experience in literature and life. (p. 108)
An aesthetic experience designates an ongoing process in which there is a special quality of the moment, an intense exercise of the senses where the reader is intent on the pattern of sensations, emotions, and concepts the text evokes (p. 33). Rosenblatt (1983) describes the task for readers:
His business for the moment is to apprehend as fully as possible these images and concepts inrelation to one another. Out ofthis arises a sense ofan organized structure of perception and feelings which constitutes for him the esthetic experience. (p. 33)
The quality of the aesthetic experience depends upon the reader’s capacities and readiness to respond. The teacher’s task is to foster fruitful transactions between individual readers and individual literary texts (pp. 26-27).
Aesthetic experiences reside in the synthesis of what a reader already knows, feels, and desires with what the literary text offers (p. 272). Rosenblatt indicates that little attention has been given to the synthesizing process, which may be one reason for the dearth of aesthetic experiences in the classroom. Rosenblatt (1983) describes this synthesizing process as follows:
Under the guidance ofthe text, out ofhis own thoughts and feelings and sensibilities, the reader makes a new ordering, the formed substance which is for him the literary work of art. The teacher of literature, especially, needs to keep alive this view ofthe literary work as personal evocation, the product of creative activity carried on by the reader under the guidance of the text. (p. 280)
Rosenblatt believes that if a teacher recognizes the value of the organic relationship between reader and text as the reader proceeds, this recognition can help to enhance the quality of the aesthetic experience for the reader. She writes: “We must place in the center of our attention the actual process of literary re-creation. As teachers of literature, our concern should be with the relation between readers and texts. This would change the emphasis in much of what we do” (p. 282). The synthesizing process of aesthetic experiences is distinctive from non-aesthetic experiences because it involves three interrelated elements: (1) an organic immersion in the reader’s prior beliefs and experiences; (2) a connection to emotional drives; and (3) a stimulation of imagination.
Immersion in Prior Beliefs and Experiences
In her discussion of how aesthetic experiences lead to an organic immersion in the reader’s prior beliefs and experiences, Rosenblatt draws attention to how a reader’s prior belief system is constituted by, and constitutes, reading. Rosenblatt writes that: “The whole personality tends to become involved in the literary experience. That a literary work may bring into play and be related to profoundly personal needs and preoccupations makes it a powerful potential educational force” (1983, p. 182). When students in Rosenblatt’s own college literature classes read Ibsen’s A Doll House, she noticed how much each reader brings to the text based on their own personal and linguistic experiences, their assumptions about the world, and their own personal preoccupations (Karolides, 1999, p. 161). Rosenblatt (1983) writes:
Through the medium of words, the text brings into the reader’s consciousness certain concepts, certain sensuous experiences, certain images of things, people, actions, scenes. The special meanings and, more particularly, the submerged associations that these words and images have for the individual reader will largely determine what the work communicates to him. The reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood ofthe moment, and a particular physical condition. These and many other elements in a never-to-be-duplicated combination determine his response to the peculiar contribution of the text. (pp. 30-31)
This connection with each reader’s past helps explain the original and personal nature of each reading event. Rosenblatt observes that: “The same text will have a very different meaning and value to us at different times or under different circumstances. Some state of mind, a worry, a temperamental bias, or a contemporary social crisis may make us either especially receptive or especially impervious to what the work offers” (p. 35).
With each encounter with the text, the reader approaches the text anew. As the reader undergoes a lived-through experience with the text, past beliefs and experiences play a significant role in the synthesizing process. Rosenblatt (1983) brings the reader back into the reading process and redefines literary experience by emphasizing the individuality of each reader and the inevitable uniqueness of each reading event.
There is no such thing as a generic reader or a generic literary work; there are only the potential millions of individual readers of the potential millions of individual literary works. A novel or poem or play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols. The literary work exists in the live circuit set up between reader and text; the reader infuses intellectual and emotional meanings into the pattern of verbal symbols, and those symbols channel his thoughts and feelings. (p. 25)
This condition of the reader’s personal involvement draws the teacher’s attention to how each reader responds.
This immersion in the reader’s prior beliefs and experiences suggests that teachers should choose texts that link to students’ needs and interests. Rosenblatt (1983) states that:
The particular community background of the student will be a factor; whether he comes from the North or the South, from city or country, from a middle-class or underprivileged home, will affect the nature ofthe understanding and the prejudices that he brings to the book. Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit or Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country will elicit avery different response from students ofNorthern and Southern (or Westchester and Harlem) background. (p. 94)
While a particular work may appeal to a reader because it addresses circumstances similar to the reader’s own situation, Rosenblatt cautions that teachers avoid focusing exclusively on students’ current interests. Rosenblatt states that: “Sometimes, the notion of ‘interest’ is oversimplified or superficial, as when works dealing with teen-age problems are offered to adolescents, or when youngsters are allowed to go on indefinitely following one type of reading-science fiction say” (p. 283). Students bring to the reading process not only an external environment, but also fundamental human emotions and relationships. A link to students’ needs and interests can also be developed on an emotional level. Rosenblatt states that: “The power of the work may reside in its underlying emotional structure, its configuration of human drives” (p. 41). Examples of underlying emotional structure in a text include the prevalent mood of uncertainty and disillusionment in Hamlet or the expression of rebellion in Mutiny on the Bounty.
Rosenblatt also warns against concentrating too narrowly on the external life of the reader in such a way that fails to lead young readers to experiences beyond their immediate surroundings. Some materials will serve as a bridge, utilizing previous literary experiences that lead to new ones. The goal of literary study is to broaden students’ comprehension of the world through their experiences with humanly significant works. Past literary experiences combined with other life experiences become part of a student’s interpretive framework. For Rosenblatt, the goal of literature classes is to lead the “young reader to learn how to enter through the printed page into the whole culture” (1983, p. 284). Thus, the intensely personal nature of the literary work is simultaneously an event that serves to bring a reader beyond the personal response into a wide array of social practices and concerns.
Connection to Emotional Drives
Another distinguishing feature of aesthetic experiences is a connection to the reader’s emotional drives. The work evokes in the reader’s mind emotions, an immediacy and emotional pervasiveness, an intense exercise of the senses that directs the reader to feelings, concerns, and satisfactions that form the guiding factors ofthe aesthetic experience. As the reader undergoes an experience with a text there “arises a sense of an organized structure of perceptions and feelings which constitutes the aesthetic experience” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 33). A literary work gains its “significance from the way in which minds and emotions of particular readers respond to the verbal stimuli offered by the text” (p. 28). This potential for an emotional quality makes literature a source for helping the reader to “sharpen further his alertness to the sensuous quality of experience” (p. 49).
The emotional tensions that arise during aesthetic experiences stimulate conflicting impulses or emotional complexities out of which thinking usually emerges in real life. Rosenblatt draws here on the pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey. In Human Nature and Conduct, Rosenblatt points to how Dewey addresses a need for reason to arise within a matrix of emotion (1983, p. 227).8 Difficult human problems cannot be considered effectively when impersonal academic treatments make them abstract subjects of thought that are disassociated from the contexts of human problems. Rosenblatt (1983) concludes that:
Literature…may provide the emotional tension and conflicting attitudes out ofwhich spring the kind of thinking that can later be assimilated into actual behavior. The emotional character of the student’s response to literature offers an opportunity to develop the ability to think rationally within an emotionally colored context. Furthermore, the teaching situation in which a group of students and a teacher exchange views and stimulate one another toward clearer understanding can contribute greatly to the growth of such habits of reflection. (pp. 227-228)
Rosenblatt stresses further that the educational potentialities of literature rest on providing opportunities for the student to react to a work on a variety of interrelated emotional and intellectual planes (p. 240). For example, when students discuss their responses to A Doll’s House, Rosenblatt observes that students feel free to express their feelings because ostensibly they were talking about the main character Nora, rather than themselves. Students’ concluding insights emerge from a process linked to emotional pulls toward various points of view (p. 237).
Stimulation of Imagination
Finally, aesthetic experiences are distinguished from non- aesthetic ones by the degree to which they stimulate imagination. Literature contributes to the enlargement of experience through imaginary situations. This enlargement of experience holds the potential for greater understanding of life because “the ability to understand and sympathize with others reflects the multiple nature of the human being, his potentialities for many more selves and kinds of experience than any one being could express” (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 40). The reader explores in the classic sense of the word both old and new territories. Rosenblatt describes the activity: “We participate in imaginary situations, we look on at characters living through crisis, we explore ourselves and the world about us, through the medium of literature” (p. 37). Readers participate in the experiences of others, develop a sense of the complex fabric of our society, extend beyond the provincialism of time and space, and create an awareness of possible alternatives that can serve as a liberating force in their thinking (pp. 192-193). Rosenblatt finds value, especially for a diverse and changing democratic society, for a reader discovering alternative ways of being and feeling.
Imagination stimulates an enlargement of experience that connects readers emotionally as well as intellectually with the lives of others. Rosenblatt finds this enlargement of experience particularly important to a democratic society: “The capacity to sympathize or to identify with the experiences of others is a most precious human attribute” (1983, p. 37). Rosenblatt believes that humanly significant literary texts foster “the kind of imagination needed in a democracy– the ability to participate in the needs and aspirations of other personalities and to envision the effect of our actions on their lives” (p. 222).
For Rosenblatt a literary text is not purely a work of art, its aesthetic qualities that are savored by the reader also communicate values that have both personal and social implications. Since the artistic and social messages cannot be separated, the selection of texts for student readers hold significant consequences. One of the key elements of a carefully chosen program in literature, according to Rosenblatt, is attention to a “rejection of such stereotyped, superficial and unshaded reactions to the mere outlines of situations or to the appeal of vague and generalized concepts” (1983, p. 104). She acknowledges the complex and conflicted nature of American society, and she looks for ways that literature can contribute to sustaining and improving our democratic way of life. Broadly defined, these democratic values include an increased “emphasis on the value of every individual human being” (p. 152) and an effort to develop “a more rational, unprejudiced approach to human beings” (p. 235). Literature contributes to the goal of greater understanding of the whole culture in all of its particularity and diversity. Thus, Rosenblatt supports expanding the range of literary texts in literature classes.
Rosenblatt advocates reading a mixture of classic, contemporary, western, nonwestern, women, and minority authors (1983, pp. 29, 38, 91, 119). Literature can reflect the tensions between older, more deeply rooted images and new images present in contemporary life. For the image of women, Rosenblatt points to how literature as one type of image-forming media can contribute, along with changes in economic and political conditions (p. 152), to shaping a redefinition of possible roles for men and women (pp. 90-92). In support of contemporary works by minority authors, she writes that: “Many recent works express the strains and stresses of our society and the plight of minority groups” (p. 270). In the later editions of Literature As Exploration, Rosenblatt highlights literary texts that represent a wide range of cultural patterns and human relations, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Peter Freuchen’s Eskimo, and Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve (pp. 38-39).
By encountering a literary heritage that reflects varied and contrasting forms of human life and personality, students come to know the complex and dynamic nature of society. The potential is there, Rosenblatt argues, to gain “heightened sensitivity to the needs and problems of others remote from him in temperament, in space, or in social environment” (1983, p. 274). Rosenblatt writes: “Our literary heritage itself, with its reflections of the varied and contrasting forms of human life and personality, with its expression of so many different life goals and values, is eloquent rebuttal of any absolutistic approach to life” (p. 129). Rosenblatt believes that the more varied the literary fare provided to students the greater its potential as an educationally liberating force, even if students read about social and moral codes very different from the ones that a particular school is committed to perpetuate (pp. 214-215). These kinds of diverse experiences provide students with an appreciation for the diversity and complexity of human life, and a growing sense of common values and concerns among people with very different cultural practices (p. 268). Imagination also serves to help readers translate ideas into human terms and to project the consequences of converting ideas into actions (p. 185). Benefits to the students accrue from using imagination almost as a trial and error method by anticipating the consequences of alternative actions (p. 222).
This powerful combination of interrelated elements, stimulation of imagination, connection with emotions, and immersion in the reader’s prior experiences and beliefs, serve to distinguish aesthetic experiences from non-aesthetic ones. These elements contribute to an aesthetic experience’s lived-through quality and hold a unique potential to vitalize the learning process. The fullness of an aesthetic experience depends upon both the circumstances under which a text is read as well as a reader’s readiness and capacities to respond. According to Rosenblatt, one of the aims of classes in literature should be “to increase the student’s ability to achieve a full, sound reading of the text, and to broaden the personal context of emotions and ideas into which this response will be incorporated” (1983, p. 273). The initial aesthetic experience with a text establishes a beginning point for a reader to undergo a complex and dynamic process of experience, synthesis, and reflection-an ongoing process in which learning takes place.
Teachers play an important part in creating conditions that can promote opportunities for students to undergo aesthetic experiences in the classroom. For the most part, these conditions determine whether or not meaningful learning can take place. Throughout Literature As Exploration, Rosenblatt argues that teachers need to direct their attention to promoting aesthetic experiences in their classrooms. Teachers of literature can make a unique contribution toward the broad humanistic goals of schools by promoting aesthetic experiences that lead to synthesis and reflection. The power of an aesthetic experience rests with its potential to connect students in a vital way to the learning process, to link their interests, emotions, and imaginations with their intellect. In this way, students develop habits of reflection that have an emotional and imaginative quality particularly crucial in a democratic society: “Such sensitivity and imagination are part of the indispensable equipment of the citizens of a democracy” (1983, p. 274). The breadth and depth of literary texts offer fertile ground for a wide range of possibilities for experiencing different aspects of life-relations, problems, and the consequences of actions on others. An important humanistic goal of education should be to enhance a student’s ability to achieve an “enlargement of mind” that promotes development at both personal and social levels. Development at both levels are inextricably intertwined.
Implications for Changing the Learning Process
A transactional approach to reading will benefit any class because it focuses a teacher’s attention to the organic nature of the learning process. An aesthetic experience designates a dynamic, organic process in which there is a special quality of the moment, a lived-through experience that touches the readers’ prior experiences and beliefs, stirs emotions, and stimulates imagination. The reading process should be viewed as a complex synthesis of personal experiences, imagination, and emotion that leads to critical reflection and communication. Rosenblatt encourages teachers to turn their attention to the unique qualities of aesthetic experience.
Rosenblatt also gives attention to the process of reflection that follows an aesthetic experience. A vital learning process should lead to continuing growth in the ability of the student to handle responses-linguistic, emotional, and intellectual- and not just to literary texts. Classes inspired by a transactional approach to reading provide an opportunity for a student to become more critically minded, to reflect on, and to examine, personal as well as others’ points of view. “A free exchange of ideas” Rosenblatt states, “will lead each student to scrutinize his own sense of the literary work in light of others’ opinions” (1983, p. 110). Rosenblatt (1983) concludes that:
A consequence of such an approach is that the student clarifies his sense of the work, he becomes aware of his own attitudes, his own notions of what is important or desirable; he broadens his awareness of alternatives of behavior and aspiration….how he is helped to handle this in the classroom, will affect what he carries away from it in enhanced sensibilities to language and to life. (p. 288)
She advises teachers of literature to “create in our classrooms an atmosphere of giveand-take and mutual challenge; through this, we shall surely find indirect evidences of the real literary experiences, the sources of growth” (p. 287). These opportunities for reflective thinking within an encouraging atmosphere of free exchange can establish habits of learning that can serve students not simply in school but also in other life situations. Rosenblatt points out that these habits of mind are essential not only to the attainment of sound literary judgment, but also to mental habits valuable for the development of sound insight into ordinary human experience (p. 226).
In order to develop habits of thought, critical judgment, and an ability to respond in relevant terms to ideas, students must build upon their initial aesthetic responses with critical reflection through writing, class discussion, and further study (Rosenblatt, 1983, p. 75). In a more recent article, Rosenblatt addresses this notion of what it means to be reflective. Simply stated, to be critical means to be selective (Rosenblatt, 1993, p. 385). There are, however, a complex set of conditions for these choices. Rosenblatt points out the interconnectedness between the individual and the social as she addresses the cultural embeddedness of this process of selectivity. While “there is always an individual human being choosing…. we should understand the possibilities of choice or aspiration within the parameters of our complex culture, with its many subcultures, its ethnic, religious, economic, and social groups” (p. 385). As a general guide, Rosenblatt promotes inculcating broadly defined democratic values that serve “as the positive criteria for selecting among choices, whether literary or social, whether stemming from the dominant or a minority culture” (p. 385).
This transactional approach leaves open the possibility that students will be, at least to some degree, on their own to examine what views of the world to accept, reject or change. It is not clear, however, how students will learn to challenge dominant assumptions that shape society in powerful ways. Rosenblatt hopes that a classroom encouraging active inquiry that addresses broad social and political concerns will move students closer to an “embodiment of our ideals” (1993, p. 386). Her contemporary description of critical reflection remains similar to her discussions in 1938 when she states that only when the student “reflects upon his response to [the text], when he attempts to understand what in the work and in himself produced that reaction, and when he thoughtfully goes on to modify, reject, or accept if’ can the student begin the learning process (1983, p. 76). For learning to take place, a student must clarify and enlarge his initial personal response to the work.
A transactional perspective also creates a significant change in how the teacher views the student. The image of students as primarily passive, contemplative beings shifts to a view of students as more operative. In their operative mode, students construct meaning in a way that resembles Dewey’s pragmatic notion of learner as artist contained in Reconstruction in Philosophy. Here, Dewey’s pragmatic view suggests that the metaphor of the artist is more appropriate than spectator views of how human beings learn (1957, p. 122). The active role for the learner advocated by Dewey is at the heart of a transactional perspective (Connell, 1996; Karolides, 1999). Dewey contends that the artist’s creation of the work of art is replicated to some degree by the art appreciator’s perceptions in his or her experience of the work. Art appreciators attempt to mimic, but not precisely imitate, the full creative experience of the artist. The appreciator who, in order to perceive what the artist has done, must actively order the elements of the whole work of art. Within the learning process, the appreciator or student maintains a generative role in experiencing and coming to understand the work. This transactional position is significant because it emphasizes an inherent and multifaceted connectedness between human beings and their surrounding (Boisvert, 1988, p. 180).
Since the publication of Literature As Exploration, literary theory has undergone dramatic changes due in large part to the influence of Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of the literary work. Her life-long aim was to rescue literature from its diminished status as a body of subject matter and emphasize its powerful potential for providing an aesthetic experience to students. Rosenblatt’s primary contribution to literary theory is to emphasize the intensely personal nature of the learning process. In her transactional theory of the literary work, Rosenblatt stresses the generative relation between a reader and a text. In particular, she stresses how the reader’s aesthetic experience with a text contributes to setting the stage for vital learning to take place.
If teachers in the arts could accomplish this task of fostering aesthetic experiences for readers in their own classrooms, then perhaps the unique potential of the arts would become more evident to teachers in other areas. Eventually, attention to aesthetic experiences might permeate the school curriculum and thus aid in making aesthetic experiences more central to meeting the broad humanistic goals of the wider school curriculum. While working on the Progressive Education Association study, Rosenblatt observed first hand many experimental schools that fostered a more experientially-based approach to learning. If aesthetic experiences become part of the learning process in a school, she predicts that the “intellectual tone of the school and the habits of thinking fostered by the entire school experience will modify the nature of the discussion in any single class….[and that the] give-and-take of ideas and the interplay between different personalities will in itself have a liberalizing influence” (1983, p. 246). Changing the intellectual tone of a school could have a profound impact on learning processes and aesthetic experiences in all classes.
In the study of literature, aesthetic experiences with a diverse range of literary texts present an opportunity for developing not only habits of reflection that link emotion and intellect, but also for enhancing feelings of sensitivity toward others. Aesthetic experiences promoted by literary study can connect students in a unique way with the emotions, needs, problems, and aspirations of themselves and other human beings. Rosenblatt finds particular benefit in the imaginative participation in a wide variety of alternative philosophies of life and patterns of behavior. Herein we find another powerful way that aesthetic experiences make a vital and distinctive contribution to the educational process needed in a democracy.
While concern about democracy’s future resonated strongly with many progressive era educators like Rosenblatt during the 1930s, today she continues to express concern about the ways that schools can contribute to the development of democracy. In a recent interview, Rosenblatt judged the value of democracy for human beings, and the importance of preserving and improving our democratic way of life as central to her views about literature and to her own commitment to education (Karolides, 1999, p. 160). While Literature as Exploration connects throughout with discussions about this larger social mission, its primary aim is to effect reform in the learning process in schools.
As an English educator, Rosenblatt is concerned first and foremost with reforming the study of literature, but she makes simultaneously a convincing argument for the personal nature of all teaching and learning (1983, p. 276). Rosenblatt challenges educators not only to seek ways to connect to the life experiences of our students in order to make learning meaningful, but also to examine the human implications of all courses of study. To maintain awareness of the broad humanistic goals of the school curriculum can be difficult and can be easily overlooked under the pressure of day-to-day life in schools. In some way, however, every class in school contributes to students’ understanding of patterns of social life and what it means to be a human being. Rosenblatt’s transactional perspective reminds us of the crucial nature of the give-and-take relationship between human beings and their natural environment. The circuit of learning is a “live one” that warrants careful attention in the contemporary educational landscape.
Copyright Caddo Gap Press Winter 2001
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