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Popular culture and educational constructs:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the idea of learning as redemption
David Wong & Danah Henriksen

Michigan State University

1. Overview

In education, constructs have typically been inspired by long-standing academic disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. We propose that contemporary culture – specifically, its art - can also be an important source of inspiration and insight for educational constructs. We turn to art because artists strive to understand and represent important qualities of human experience. As a literary scholar might search for classic universal themes and archetypal characters, we search for pervasive and persistent ideas in the human story. We call these ideas “deep inclinations” because they express something compelling and common in our experience of life. Because deep inclinations are expressed over long periods of time, through diverse mediums, by a wide variety of people, we propose these ideas can be the basis for understanding students’ experience and for creating powerful educational experiences.

The idea of redemption is one such deep inclination. Throughout history, popular and fine art has expressed our fascination with the idea that life’s ordinary routine can somehow become more meaningful, valuable, and vital. Our analysis of the arts begins with the popular television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In BTVS, the redemption theme is pervasive: vampires are the undead, characters struggle to recover their lost soul, and there is constant tension between an excess and absence of consciousness. We strengthen our case for the depth of the redemptive inclination by expanding our analysis to include in film, fine arts, literature, philosophy, and religion.

A second aim of our analysis is to develop implications for educational scholarship and practice. The wide variety of representations of the redemption idea in BTVS and elsewhere help us develop a more sophisticated, nuanced, varied understanding of the redemptive experience that, in turn, enables us to appreciate qualities of the student experience that may not be as apparent from common academic perspectives. From the perspective of the redemption idea, students’ lives may be similarly seen as a struggle to imbue their existence with soul, spirit, and vitality. In this light, educational experiences are compelling to the degree that students’ lives take on greater meaning, value, vitality, and humanity.

Popular culture and educational constructs

Academic disciplines and educational constructs

  • Popular culture and the arts are the well-spring for educational constructs

  • Educational constructs emerge from other academic disciplines

  • The construct is developed from an analysis of the arts, as well as academic disciplines

  • The construct is developed from an analysis of the parent disciplines

  • The emergent construct has already demonstrated itself to be engaging to students before it is developed further

  • The construct proves itself to be engaging to students after it has been developed

Finding “deep inclinations” and developing educational constructs

  • Identify trends and fashions in popular culture. What seems to be engaging the heart and minds of students?

  • Examine how the idea is expressed in a wide range of art forms over a long period of time

  • Explore how the idea is not only expressed, but also developed in the arts. One not only recognizes it, but also develops a deep understanding of it in the arts.
  • Determine how the idea can be developed into fruitful implications for education

Illustrate these criteria using the redemption idea as an example of a deep inclination

2. Understanding the experience of students
Understanding the experience of students, especially motivation

  1. the tradition: borrowing from the parent disciplines

  2. an alternative: drawing on deep inclinations expressed in art

When addressing the central question of what motivates students, educational scholars and practitioners have traditionally turned to the disciplines of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy. In psychology, motivation has been variously conceptualized as a need to seek positive experiences and to avoid negative ones, to resolve cognitive dissonance and seek coherence, to solve practical problems and functionally adapt to one’s environment, to participate in a community of activity, and to feel efficacious and in control (for a good overview, see Greeno et al., 1996).

Our approach to understanding the nature of human motivation follows a different, but complementary path. We find insight not only within the boundaries of conventional academic paradigms, but also in the realm of popular and fine art. Because art is an intensifying of important qualities of human experience, we thought that might be a particularly fruitful resource for understanding what compels us.

In our analysis of popular and fine art, we were particularly interested in ideas that have been expressed across time and genre. As a literary scholar might search for classic universal themes and archetypal characters, we searched for similar qualities in the past and present human story as represented in the arts. We called the pervasive and persistent ideas “deep inclinations.” Because deep inclinations are expressed over long periods of time, through diverse mediums, by a wide variety of people, we propose these ideas will continue to find resonance with students today.

We are not afraid to take seriously that which is considered popular, trendy, and even silly or crass. To take serious pop culture may also be a questionable career move since it represents everything that “good” scholarship is not: it is light rather than weighty, fun rather than serious, fleeting rather than permanent. Furthermore, pop experiences are seen as sensational - immediately appealing and grasped - rather than intellectual, derived from work and thoughtful analysis. Although we firmly believe in value of traditional academic work, we are concerned that its virtues may also become its liabilities: what is thoughtful can become highbrow, what is grounded in a discipline can become provincial, what is academic can become elitist. Our concerns would not be as serious were academic scholarship historically more effective in advancing student learning. However, given that academics have long struggled to affect changes in education, the shift in attention to popular culture seems timely and sensible.
(cite action research literature. Work in this general spirit has involved teachers as researchers, the researchers as teachers. Has attempted to appreciate lives of teachers to inform research. With regard to students, similar attempts have made to understand the lived experience of students rather than a unilateral application of theoretically derived implications to instruction (e.g., ). In the area of motivation,
Since our focus is on the issue of motivation and instruction, we began by asking what kinds of experiences are engaging to a wide range of students. We first turned our attention to popular “art”, of which BTVS is one example.
In summary, our methodology for understanding and affecting the student motivation is constituted by three basic tasks.

  1. Identify possible deep inclinations in popular “art”. Establish the idea as deep inclination by finding pervasive and enduring expression of the idea in a wide variety of art forms

  2. Re-examine examples to appreciate the nuance and variation of the deep inclination idea

  3. Use the idea as a basis for designing educational experiences that are worthwhile and compelling

3. An Example: Redemption as a Deep Inclination

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Popular culture as a starting point

Any work of art could be a productive starting point in the search for deep inclinations. In our work, we are drawn first to things that are popular with high school students and young adults – our target audience. This explains our interest in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – an unlikely topic of discussion within the cloister of orthodox educational scholars.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has been a hugely popular television series on WB network. (some facts about its popularity) Furthermore, “Buffy” has received critical acclaim from entertainment critics and has developed an active cult fan following. Why was BTVS so hugely successful? A cast of interesting attractive actors is helpful, no doubt. It also does not hurt that these actors’ characters are mysterious, rebellious, and smart-mouthed. Perhaps, though, the “Buffy” phenomenon has something to do with some of the ideas at the heart of many of the episodes. Of the numerous themes in the show, we concentrate on one – the idea of redemption. In a New York Times interview, Joss Whedon, creator of BTVS, called redemption “one of the most important themes” in his work (NYT, 05/06/2003). In the series, several BTVS characters struggle to redeem their existence with greater meaning and value.

For example, one of the central characters, Angel, is a vampire-human and, as such, is an unsettled complex of animal urge and human consciousness. Angel’s existence is given shape by the tension between the pull of dark events of his past and the persistent belief that redemption is possible through his present actions. Joss Whedon, on redemption and Angel:

The idea of the show was redemption, and what it takes to win back a life when you’ve misused yours terribly. It’s gone through a lot of different permutations. A lot of characters and styles. But ultimately that has never left. Angel, to me, is so important, because it’s about how a person faces what they’ve done with their life, goes forward with it, overcomes it. These are things that have a great deal of meaning to me. Plus, awesome fights. And, you know, if I have any message for Americans, it’s that you can solve problems through fisticuffs.
In BTVS, Angel is an odd paradox: a vampire with a soul. These two versions include “Angel”, the soulful man with a wish to make amends, and “Angelus” the demon-vampire with no soul, no remorse and a passion for destruction and evil.
We took a closer at the BTVS phenomenon and examined its characters and episodes and read interviews by Joss Whedon. Furthermore, we discovered a surprisingly large corpus of serious scholarship on BTVS. In addition to numerous essays in the New York Times, The Onion, and Slate magazines, BTVS has also inspired international conferences, academic journals and books, and countless media studies courses (c.f. Appelo, 1990; Early, 2001; Owen, 1999; Robinson, 2001; Taylor, 2002). During our review, it was difficult to ignore the parallels between characters like Angel and the experience of many high school and college-aged students who struggle with a similar deadness of spirit and lack of meaning in their existence. The idea of “learning as redemption” began to emerge where worthwhile education creates experiences in which students become more fully alive and human. As in redemption, learning is also a matter of becoming a person of greater spirit and consciousness.

Enduring, pervasive expression of a deep inclination. Our examination of “Buffy” was the starting point in considering that redemption might be a deep inclination. Had it not been “Buffy”, the notion that we have a deep and enduring fascination with the redemption could have been prompted by many other sources. Precisely because it is a deep inclination, the idea is widely expressed in art and is readily apparent for all who are looking for it. Here are a few examples.

In “The Shawshank Redemption” Tim Robbins’ character is falsely sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife. Even though he did not commit the murder, he confesses to being too absorbed in his work as a banker and regrets not spending more time with his wife. While in prison, Robbins’ character puts his organizational skills to good use by setting up a library for his fellow inmates. His background in accounting enables him to become an invaluable financial and tax advisor to the prison guards. In the end, his redemption is complete as he escapes to freedom, exposes the evil prison supervisor, and reunites with his best friend from prison who is finally granted parole after years of being denied.

Continuing in the “prison redemption” category, we find “The Hurricane” (1999) and “Redemption”. “The Hurricane” (1999) is the true story of Rubin Carter’s struggle, despair, and eventual triumph during his wrongful imprisonment for triple-murder. Through Carter’s redemption, he not only regains his freedom and dignity, but also finds a powerful voice as a writer and draws public attention to the civil injustices of the time. Similarly, “Redemption” (2004) tells the true story of a former L.A. Crips gang co-founder, Stan “Tookie” Williams. His redemption comes from the books he wrote from his San Quentin prison cell, in which Tookie urges young people to find alternatives to gang life. Although still on death row, Tookie has been nominated for two Nobel Prizes.
Note: It seems that redemptive experiences often emerge during times of extreme struggle and hardship. Prison, along with war, personal and health crises, and Christmas, are example of such trying times. Other prison inmates who have produced well-known works include Apostle Paul (letters from prison), Martin Luther King (Letter from a Birmingham Jail), Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress), Cervantes (Don Quixote), Oscar Wilde (De Profundus), and the Marquis de Sade (Prison Letters).

Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” tells the story of Henry Fleming, a farm boy who sets out in search of glory and esteem by running away from home to join the Civil War. Before he redeems his life with courage and dignity, he first experiences terror, cowardice, injury, and anger. Other literature examples featuring a prominent redemption theme include Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (e.g., Jean Valjean character) and Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” For those who may find these examples too dated or too esoteric, Ernest Gaines’ “A Lesson Before Dying” provides a relatively contemporary and popular (an Oprah’s Book Club selection) example of the redemption theme. Even, the children’s classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is the prototypic tale of the redemptive experience. Similarly, “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” also underscore the redemptive idea with a holiday theme.

In painting…
Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox”

Caravaggio’s “Madelena”

Cezanne’s “Woman with Rosary”

In any discussion of redemption, it is impossible to overlook that the idea is found in just about every major religion. In religion, the relationship between redemption and spiritual qualities of experience become apparent. In contrast to the feeling of solving a challenging puzzle or the thrill of an amusement park ride, the redemptive experience is made compelling by more than just its intellectual or emotional intensity. There is a distinct spiritual quality that comes with the possibility of finding greater vitality, significance, and purpose in one’s existence.

Just as we are inclined to tales of redemption, we are drawn with equal force to stories about the “opposite of redemption” or fall from grace. Rather than imbuing life with value, some lives are diminished because of poor judgment or bad luck. For example, the topsy-turvy world of boxer Mike Tyson wildly swings back and forth between the bleak and the glorious. And, as art imitates life, the hugely successful “Rocky” films chronicle the rise and fall (five times!) of the lovable, everyman boxer, Rocky Balboa. For other examples, look no further than the news headlines. The fall of Bill Clinton, Prince Charles, and the Beckham are made all the more compelling because of the dizzying heights from which they tumbled. In some cases, the fall sets the stage for dramatic celebrity redemption, similar to what we saw with jailhouse redemption. For example, after serving a prison sentence and paying a $40 million fine, Michael Milken transformed himself from a self-promoting “Junk Bond King” to an ambitious philanthropist.

Finally, if any doubt remains about the prominence and power of the redemptive idea, we need only turn to recent actions by corporate giant, General Motors. In a 2003, the worlds’ largest automaker launched an advertising campaign titled “Road to Redemption” – a name chosen by GM officials themselves. In this series of sleekly produced commercials, GM takes the unprecedented step of confessing to past problems and promising a transformation in the quality and value of its cars. (GM advertising: Road to Redemption, http://www.gm.com/vc/story/home_flash.htm


These examples from film, literature, and life in general support our proposal that we have a deep inclination for the redemption idea. Clearly, the idea of being released from suffering and recovering life’s meaning and value finds prominent and enduring expression in our culture and we typically feel an almost irresistible fascination with it. We suggest, then, that the popular success of “BuffY is in part related to the fact that the redemption idea pervades many episodes.
4. From identifying to developing the redemption idea

So far, we have established that the appeal of the redemption idea is widespread, enduring, and deep. Eventually, we will assert that our deep inclination for the redemption idea can be the basis for creating compelling educational experiences. In short, we will propose that learning at its best can be a redemptive experience as the student’s world is filled with meaning and life. Science lessons, for example, can be designed to inspire students to see things in their world that they had not noticed before. Perhaps students can find the science lessons and episodes of BTVS gripping for the same reason - both are expressions of the redemption idea. That is, in both experiences, one senses the possibility of restoring meaning and value to life.

To this point, we have defined redemption only in the most general terms such as “redemption is the saving or improving of someone who has declined into a poor state”. In order to generate fruitful implications for education, we must develop a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding that is true to the heart of the redemptive experience. Thus, our next step is to understand more fully what makes the redemption idea so compelling.

Our strategy is to return to the world of popular and fine art. (reasons: artists are particularly adept at capturing compelling qualities of the human experience, and art, especially art that is popular, seems to express something that resonates with people). In the next section, we focus primarily on BTVS, but will also extend outward to other expressions of the redemption idea. As we identify particularly interesting qualities of the redemptive experience in the BTVS episodes, we are inspired to see whether and how this quality was expressed in other art forms. We consider two qualities of the redemptive experience that seemed to have the potential to make fruitful and original contributions to the discussion of motivation and instruction: redemption and the transfiguration of the mundane, and redemption and recovery of the soul.
Redemption and the recovery of the soul
Given our interest in motivation and education, one of the most important insights emerging from our examination of BTVS is that the idea of the soul lies at the heart of the redemptive experience. In many episodes, BTVS expresses the idea that the soul, or the lack of one, is key to understanding what it is like to experience the world of the “undead”. The soulless characters are able to move, but not to be moved. The vampire as well as humans each illustrate what it is like to be trapped in an existence devoid of feelings, especially feelings related to caring.

What is “soul”? Soul has a variety of interrelated meanings including: the complex of human attributes that manifests as consciousness, thought, feeling, and will, regarded as distinct from the physical body; evidence of spiritual or emotional depth and sensitivity, either in a person or in something created by a person; and the deepest and truest nature of a people or a nation, or what gives somebody or something a distinctive character. In many perspectives – religious and secular - the soul is practically equated to life itself. To wit, without a soul, the living are essentially undead - humans who are “nothing more than” beasts. Similarly, with the death of the physical body, after-life or eternal life is still possible through the continued existence of the soul. Although we do not take a position here on whether a soul “really” exists in life or death, we do acknowledge that the idea of the soul expresses important qualities of the human experience, especially redemptive experiences.

(Note: Although similarities exist, our view of teaching as recovery of the soul should not be confused with religious or moral education. The primary differences are an emphasis on developing a capacity to living a more conscious, spirited, and “soulful” life, rather than becoming aware of and learning to live by particular moral principles).
To be human means to have compassion, feeling, and thought. Often contrasted with being machine-like. To be human means to have imperfections and weaknesses, often contrasted to a superior being or God. It seems like a logical contradiction that we expect students to be human in one sense (compassion, feeling, thinking), but not another (be weak, make mistakes).
The soul and redemption as represented in BTVS
We present a series of short descriptions of several characters and episodes from BTVS. We choose these examples because they can stimulate insight to the nature of the soul and redemptive experience.

Once More With Feeling” episode. In this unique and hugely popular episode, the entire world of the Buffyverse is transfigured as all communication begins to occur almost entirely through song. The musical nature of the plot fits nicely into the storyline, in which a singing-dancing demon comes to Sunnydale and casts a spell to make the world of BTVS a musical. Characters that had been failing to communicate, are suddenly able to share the feelings they have been loathe to reveal in everyday conversation, as they sing, tap and twirl their emotions without missing a beat. The contrast between the ordinary/non-musical and the extraordinary/musical worlds in this episode illuminates qualities of un-redeemed and redeemed existence. Prior to the episode’s transformation of musical expression, the characters’ had been world-weary and sluggish: their lives at a standstill, neither developing nor improving. The term “the doldrums” originates from an area just north of the equator, between the ocean’s trade winds, where there is little or no wind. Ships caught in the doldrums would be unable to move forward for lack of sufficient in-spiration to fill their sails. Most significantly, “Once More With Feeling” highlights how life is changed when we have a greater capacity to have and to express feelings of caring and love. This episode is significant because Buffy and Spike share their first kiss. Buffy recognizes her unspoken feelings for Spike, who in turn is able to finally realize his dreams of love for Buffy. Under the transfiguring influence of a musical spell, they both reveal in song what they had been seeking from each other and denying from themselves.

Spike. Spike epitomizes the effect of a soul in the transformative effect it has upon an “undead” vampire character, who transcends his soulless state to reveal a moral complexity and longing to be a better man. The depiction of soul in BTVS is signified in part as a desire to change, evolve, and improve through the experience of life. Spike’s initial opposition to Buffy and her friends gradually shifts as he interacts with the group of heroes, and he begins to observe changes in himself. Over time his feelings deepen into love for her, but in the absence of a human soul this love retains an egotistic, possessive quality; so despite Spike’s development he cannot fully understand the deeper inclinations of feeling and redemption. The conflict in this idea becomes violently clear in his attempted rape of Buffy.
Joss Whedon has emphasized the complexity of the character,

“Spike was definitely kind of a soulful character before he had a soul, but we made it clear that there was a level on which he could not operate. Although Spike could feel love, it was the possessive and selfish kind…The concept of real altruism didn’t exist for him. And although he did love Buffy and was moved by her emotionally, ultimately his desire to possess her led him to try and rape her because he couldn’t make the connection —- the difference between their dominance games and actual rape”

When Spike ultimately wins back his soul through a series of challenging trials, he is able for the first time to imagine a better path and appreciate what it means to feel truly alive. His evolution towards a soulful self is demonstrated in a more selfless love for Buffy, and his ultimate achievement as a genuine hero who gives of himself to save the world. In gaining his soul, the Spike retains key elements of his personality, his humor and biting wit, yet his capacity for feeling and sense of purpose deepens immensely. When he refers to his redeemed soul as, “the spark, the missing... the piece that fit” (“Lessons”, season 7, episode 1), he elegantly captures “soul” as a humanizing element that ignites emotion and spirit for life…even into a creature initially characterized as the archetypal “undead”.

These episodes and characters from BTVS reveal to us how the soul is the very essence of the person. If vampires are the “undead” or the “living dead” and are bereft of a soul, then a soul must in fact be an animating and vital principle. It might be thought of as internal life itself, more than internal physicality (organs and systems), it may be conceived as spiritual, emotional, mental life. It is often perceived as an immaterial entity, and it would seem that BTVS considers the soul to be so as well. As something intangible within us, it is felt as an intrinsic force that propels us towards a better self or a better life.
Vampires don’t change at any deep level, time passes and they remain the same, always immortal, and always without the hope of redemption. Characters such as Spike are able to truly feel and possess a spark of life only once they are granted a soul. Certainly, with this soul comes a burden (in light of past acts), but it also instills a desire for something better, a higher path. It is something of a paradox that such a weightless or non-corporeal being as a soul could impart a burden. However it is reflective of the fact that the essence of the immaterial can be quite vital to life itself. Emotions, sensations, concepts, spirit and the like have no physical mass, but great meaning and significance. In education we place the same deep meaning and redeeming value upon learning and ideas. In being truly alive we are affected by aspects beyond the tangible.
The recovery of the soul in education

The “soullessness” of the school experience is well represented in both the arts and in educational research. Consider a brief survey of popular films that make reference life in school: Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Breakfast Club, Heathers, Mean Girls, Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society, and Stand and Deliver. With alarmingly few exceptions, popular films portray student life as dull, meaningless, and even stupid. Although these caricatures of life in school are created for humorous or dramatic effect, we find them engaging to the degree that they capture something essentially true to our experience of school. What these films portray is a deep ennui in the students. They are disconnected and unmoved by the world around them. Students are lifeless even though they are living.

Like the fictional hallways in these films, real schools are often filled with students drifting from class to class - the walking dead. For most of the day, the undead engage without purpose, react without caring. What may seem like tiredness is actually deep weariness; what seems like not being challenged is actually profound inability to be moved.
We propose that in powerful educative experiences, the “soul is recovered” as students’ existence takes on a renewed vitality and meaning. To animate the senses, integrate thought and feeling, and stir to action is to become more fully alive and spirited. The aesthetic theories of Dewey (1934) and Jackson (1998) are helping us realize how such experiences can be created. Consider Jackson’s (1998) description of the “full perception” had during compelling aesthetic experiences.
…when we become totally absorbed in what this event or idea is like, that the various components of our psychological being - our ability to think, to feel, to appreciate, to experience through all of our senses - come into play at once. At such moments our various capacities not only are realized (i.e., become real) but are also momentarily fused and unified. Only then do we experience what it is like to be fully human (p. 149).

The metaphor of teaching as the recovery of the soul may remind some of a more familiar description of the purpose of education - to teach is to inspire. With the Latin root “spirare”, to “inspire” is literally “to breathe life into” someone. As with the soul, inspiration is that which animates the mind, body, and spirit. How does the teacher accomplish this act of inspiration, this recovery of the soul? Dewey emphasizes that subject-matter ideas are a vital element in this kind of teaching. Inspiration requires more than just a charismatic persona or a stimulating presentation – it is a powerful idea that inspires students’ to perceive their world anew.

Consider an example: in the midst of a rather uninspired high school science lesson on photosynthesis, a student suddenly sits bolt upright and exclaims, “I have an idea. You say that variation is important in Darwin's theory of evolution. Does that mean, then, that variation or diversity among people is also important for adaptation in the human species?" In this example, the having of an idea is an event that moves forward with dramatic energy: it is an experience. The student is filled with thought, has feelings associated with where the idea may lead, and is energized to act either physically or in imagination. Thus, in an experience, thought, feeling, and action are unified, and in these moments of "heightened vitality" students experience what it is like to be fully alive, to be redeemed.
Redemption and the Transfiguration of the Mundane
As we consider how the students’ experience of school often feels meaningless, we develop a second important insight about the redemptive experience. When the soul is recovered, so too is their perception of world transformed. Notice in the classroom example just described that the world of the student becomes filled with more interesting and meaningful phenomena. This change in the world is part and parcel of living a more soul-ful life – of being redeemed. Thus, living a more soul-ful life involves more than just having different inner beliefs, knowledge, and feelings. There is also a change in how the world is experienced.
We see more detail, it stimulates us differently, evokes different thoughts and feelings. In compelling educational experiences, what was ordinary becomes extraordinary, what was meaningless becomes meaning-ful.
Consider again the episode “Once more with feeling.” Danah: describe how their world or their perception of the world is transformed.

Rembrant’s Flayed-Ox. Rembrandt’s “Flayed-Ox” is a painting of an ox carcass hanging in a butcher shop. “Flayed-Ox” may, at first, strike viewers as ugly or insignificant or remind them of dead animals and butchery. Although the experience may be filled with strong emotions, Dewey would consider this kind of reflexive experience to be, at best, mere recognition because no real transformation of meaning has yet occurred. By contrast, in an experience characterized by true appreciation, the mundane, inert, and grotesque of “Flayed-Ox” is transfigured to reveal great beauty, spirituality, or magnificence. Art critic Don Gray writes,

Rembrandt's painting of the carcass of beef is horrible, ugly, beautiful, transcendent, true...like life...contradictory, but ever-present and unavoidable. But beauty and truth seem to dominate here (perhaps a harsh truth, but redeemed by the magnificence and majesty of paint become flesh...flesh become paint...flesh become light). Horror and death are redeemed by this icon of red and golden flesh that glows with richly radiant light from out of a dark background in a simple storage room...A timeless, transcendent event occurs in the most ordinary of settings..” (Don Gray. Art Essays, Art Criticism, and Poems. http://www.jessieevans-dongray.com/essays/essay088.html)
Check quote and grammar
Thus, transfiguration or appreciation is to move beyond our habit of recognizing. Under the proper conditions - where artful representation transacts with educated perception and we inquire about the particulars of “this” painting - there can be appreciation of greater meaning and value. The painting reveals colors, objects, and relationships we did not see before. Even more important, our perception of the world beyond this painting may be transformed as well. Perhaps, we will find greater appreciation in the cow or the butcher, or more generally, in things we ordinarily see as coarse and crude.
Other examples of transfiguration. The idea of transfiguration also refers to a specific event in the Bible: the radiant appearance of Jesus Christ on a mountaintop before three of his disciples, as recorded in the Bible. While the Bible affirms the previously discussed relationship between transfiguration and spirituality, we need to be careful to not lapse into the false and harmful assumption that transfiguration requires supernatural intervention.

In contrast to most religious doctrine, the twentieth century philosophical movement known as existentialism denied that world has any intrinsic meaning, purpose, or morality. Escape from nihilistic despair (Kierkegaard) and nausea (Sartre) comes only in the realization that existence is given meaning, purpose, and value through the choices we make and the actions we take. The existential crisis urges us to live a life that creates new meaning and value, rather than live a life that accords with pre-ordained codes. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer proposed that life is an act of creative becoming. Thus, individuals must live artistically by transfiguring their indifferent world into something beautiful. The role of the educator is to support the students’ creative becoming by enabling their imagination, knowledge, thought, and action. There may be good reason why the word “art” refers both to the product of creative existence and to existence itself (“wherefore art thou…”)

Transfiguration in education
Educators are well aware of that many students experience school as lacking in meaning and significance. One common response promoted by both practitioners and scholars for over 100 years has been to develop curriculum that is more responsive to students’ interests and lives outside of school. This approach has met with inconsistent success because practical tensions inevitably arise when educators attempt to design coherent curriculum that responds to both general subject-matter goals and to student interests (Dewey, Child and the Curriculum). Should the curriculum be organized around the particulars of students’ interests or the enduring, traditional ideas of the discipline? And, how is it possible for teachers to develop curriculum that is coherent and connects to the interests of all their students? Finally, because students spend some much of their lives in school, it might be worthwhile to make life in school more meaningful and significant for its own sake? Shouldn’t school be more than an instrumental experience preparing them for a distant, constantly receding future “life”?
Finally, students’ interests are often associated with immediate and strong sensory stimulation. Subtle or nuanced phenomena tend to be overlooked or considered boring. Educators feel ever-increasing pressure to implement activities of greater and greater sensory stimulation. The recent developments of educational technologies such as multi-media, simulations, and computer gaming seem to be driving, rather than responding to, students’ inclination toward phenomena that are immediate and intense. There are obvious concerns about the wisdom of conflating pedagogical soundness with decibel level.

Perhaps, an alternate credo to “bigger, faster, louder” is “look closer.” As with Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox”, the talented teacher and educated student might together look closer at “ordinary” and “mundane” things and transform them into something of greater value and significance. We can return to the core subject-matter ideas – perhaps long considered by students as boring and irrelevant - and reconsider how they could be significant, meaningful, and, even beautiful. Dewey recommended that educators must “psychologize” the subject-matter ideas. By this, he meant that educators must have a deep appreciation of the wonder, awe, and delight made possible when experiencing the world through particular subject-matter ideas. The capacity to experience the transformative power of subject-matter ideas is the gift of good teachers. It is the gift that they must pass on to their students.

Thus, teachers should take a look at the physical or social phenomena that exist everywhere and everyday but are never really seen. When the ordinary is transfigured to be extraordinary, instruction creates rather than merely gratifies students’ interests. The routine and oppression of school is lifted by a sense of surprise and possibility. In transfiguration, we are not transferred to a different world. Instead, the value of things that have always been with us is revealed. To reveal the beauty of the true nature of things is power of redemption. And, what of the sensory intensity that students are normally attracted to? We suggest that the experience of transfiguration is indeed compelling, but it is an intensity of a different quality. We propose that intensity has more to do with inner anticipation, quiet delight and hushed awe than “super-sized” and “X-treme” reactions.

Dewey aesthetic philosophy. In developing specific educational implications for the teaching Dewey’s notion of appreciation is particularly helpful. Generally, to “appreciate” means to like or be knowledgeable about something. In this view, if we are said to appreciate, say, a painting in a museum or a meal at a restaurant if we can enjoy or speak knowledgeably about it. We may quickly identify the particular painting or meal as an example of something (“Yes, that piece typifies Hopper’s view of 20th century isolation and loneliness”, “As you know, osso buco is an Italian stew made with veal shin”). Or perhaps, we are reminded of a prior experience and lapse into nostalgia or reminiscence (“I saw the original at the Institute of Art in Chicago”, “I love this dish because it reminds me of a my favorite trattoria in Umbria.”) In any case, few new insights or understanding emerge because the particulars of “this” thing are too quickly overtaken by pre-existing categories of experiences. Granted, these experiences can be compelling because they stir strong memories or impress others. However, there may also emerge a sense of ennui: the dull feeling of “been there, done that.” Dewey’s saw little value in this kind of experience because it lacked the quality vital to all educative experience: transformation of the person and world.

Dewey preferred an alternate notion of appreciation – one based on dramatically different assumptions about experience and learning:

In one of its meanings, appreciation is opposed to depreciation. It denotes an enlarged, an intensified prizing, not merely a prizing, much less—like depreciation—a lowered and degraded prizing. This enhancement of the qualities which make any ordinary experience appealing, appropriate—capable of full assimilation—and enjoyable, constitutes the prime function of literature, music, drawing, painting, etc., in education. (Dewey, mw.9.246)

In Dewey’s view, “to appreciate” means to increase in value. Just as one’s financial investments can become more valuable in certain situations, one’s perception of a painting or meal can become more meaningful over time under supportive conditions. The supportive conditions depend on how the thing (art, idea, food, etc.) is presented, and the knowledge and disposition of the beholder. An example may be illustrative. We can see clearly how the idea of redemption and Dewey’s appreciation both concern the imbuing life with greater worth and significance.
Examples from the classroom. What could be more ordinary, more mundane and everyday than the weather? On most days, the winds, clouds, humidity, and temperature arouse little notice, aside from the social custom of commenting on the weather. In our research program, we have worked on curriculum that develops students’ disposition and knowledge so that they might appreciate the value and meaning in “ordinary” phenomenon.

For example, our experiences in classrooms have shown that students are attracted to the idea of the “perfect storm.” At first, they are simply amazed by the size and power of tropical storms and tornados. Then, they learn about how water temperature, wind conditions, humidity, and a number of other seemingly uninteresting, ordinary factors have to come together in just the “right” conditions. They learn that the difference between a massive hurricane and an ordinary storm is to a large degree a matter of chance, a few small differences. From this knowledge emerges a sublimely cool experience: a growing appreciation of the extraordinary nature of these phenomena. Also, once students understand some of the vital scientific ideas of weather, they may look at the clouds and sky on “ordinary” days and appreciate the potential for the perfect storm from these same elements.

An appreciation for the extraordinary, rare, and miraculous leads the open mind quickly to the realization that most complex phenomena can be seen in this way. The complexity of the birth of a child is both comprehensible and incomprehensible. The more we understand, the more this ordinary phenomenon becomes extraordinary. Similarly, sublime experiences are evoked when appreciating the delicate balance of the ecosystem. And, the feat of sending a manned spacecraft to the moon or a space shuttle into a geosynchronous orbit is an occasion for the sublime if students can sense the extraordinary complexity of the operation. Like adults, students likely have taken the wonder of technological invention for granted and have lost perspective on how many things must come together in a successful space mission. Only in tragedy are we reminded of the extraordinary nature of this endeavor.

Similarly, the “makeover” show also seems to have struck a deep chord of resonance in many of us. Shows such as “What Not to Wear”, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and “Extreme Makeover” all suggest the intrinsic appeal of the makeover idea. In fact, the makeover idea is so powerful that it extends beyond redoing simply our physical appearance. It seems the magic of transformation can also grace our home (“Trading Spaces”), automobile (“Monster Garage”), and entire lifestyle (“Becoming”). That we take these programs seriously does not necessarily we judge them to be worthwhile by any criteria.
Summarize the rationale and process of developing educational constructs from popular culture phenomenon.
Comparison of deep inclination of redemption to conventional educational constructs

  • there is really nothing like it

  • positive self-esteem, Csikzsentmihalyi’s flow seem distantly related
  • lack the intense human element: the soulful and spiritual qualities

Other examples of potential deep inclinations.

    • Attraction to sublime experiences, extreme phenomena and experiences

    • fascination with fashion

    • the cellphone/email/internet connectivity phenomenon

Might highbrow skeptics sniff and dismiss this work as “socio-pop-cultural” theory or “philosophy-lite”? Possibly. However, we suspect the community of educators will be open to the suggestion that important contributions can come from places and people outside traditional academic circles. On the one hand, by drawing inspiration from a popular television series, by citing mainstream publications, by connecting to film, religion, and literature, the redemption idea takes on a distinctly contemporary feel. On the other hand, the enduring nature of this idea’s expression in art, philosophy, and religion establishes redemption as a deep human inclination and gives it an unmistakably timeless feel. As a result, we believe our scholarship can resonate with three important audiences: scholars, practitioners, and students. By drawing on the arts as inspiration for educational constructs, we strive to make these ideas “popular” in every positive sense of the word.


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"Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale".
See Johnson’s “Everything Bad is Good for You”. Argues that Pop culture is better for than before because it gives greater practice at survival skills. In contrast, we make no claims about the value of any, much less all, pop culture phenomenon. Instead, we argue that our fascination with particular phenomenon can reveal deep inclinations of our human nature.

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