The Arts and the Creation of Mind
reviewed by Mary Bushnell - 2004
A few times every semester in my undergraduate social foundations courses, I hand out boxes of crayons and paper and invite students to explore educational philosophies, histories, and theories through drawing. The idea behind the aesthetic activity is to encourage students to explore ideas from perspectives other than the linguistic manipulation of ideas, including the simple memorization of facts and concepts on texts. Through the experiences of color, shapes, spatial relationships, and textures, students have academic license to develop visually, as well as linguistically, and articulate their informed opinions. It is this idea of art for cognitive and imaginative development that the acclaimed scholar Elliot W. Eisner explores in his newest book The Arts and the Creation of Mind.
Where Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered explored what a teacher might teach, in his newest book Eisner explores the how of teaching. He does not present a simplistic methodology lesson, but a philosophically based exploration of the wholeness of educational endeavors. By understanding the teaching of art, educators may develop a more complex, open-ended, and questioning approach to all teaching.
Although the title suggests a narrow focus on an individual’s intellectual development, the book explores wider avenues. Eisner discusses the “artistry of teaching,” the role of curriculum and standards, and the challenges of assessment, particularly in chapters six and seven. The link between all of these is art’s inherent ambiguity and the necessity for the art viewer to engage in meaning making. Eisner (1994) made this argument earlier, but now provides greater articulation for the potential role of art in a young person’s education. Art is no less rigorous than other curricular areas, Eisner argues, as teaching the arts involves careful attention to traditional educational concerns of curriculum, scope, and sequence. How can a student master depth in painting if she has not previously explored the relationships of colors and darkness? More evident in the teaching of art is the need for an artistic teacher to attend to the emergent abilities and interests of the students in front of her, rather than cleaving blindly to a prescribed curriculum. While Eisner discusses visual art throughout the book, he points out that visual art is but one example of the range of artistic expression to which his argument can be applied.
In the current educational climate, I am delighted to read such unabashed acclaim for the necessity of art and aesthetics. For educators predisposed to the academic, social, and moral virtues of aesthetic experience, Eisner’s latest book will provide some practice-based exploration of these powerful concepts. Building on Dewey (1934), Eisner demonstrates how the arts provide an ideal means for engaging in active sense making. Aesthetic experience is not found only in museum art, but also in the everyday: it “is potential in any encounter an individual has with the world” (p. 232).
Eisner is persuasive and thorough while applying lessons from the teaching of art to the artistry of teaching. His argument becomes less articulate, however, when he relates art to a gloss of current educational issues and reforms. His scattered approach to educational reform issues does not provide for a clear and resounding argument against the vast technical rational rhetoric surrounding schooling today. This limitation becomes particularly evident as Eisner does not carefully articulate what sort of “mind” is being created through art. Is he suggesting that “mind” does not exist in advance of aesthetic experiences? What differentiates “mind” from intellectual, social, and physical activities? He describes a “mind” that is engaged, active, and questioning, but I am left wondering how Eisner’s “conception of mind” engages with the rhetoric of national standards and high-stakes testing. I acknowledge that such a discussion is challenging at best, for the languages are distinct and, perhaps, mutually incomprehensible. Yet Eisner does his supporters a disservice by not acknowledging the uphill battle in which we are engaged. As part of a growing critique of technical rationality, Eisner argues consistently for art in the service of intellectual development. Just as he may not provide sufficient rhetoric for his supporters, Eisner’s argument may be too limited to sway those who prefer a traditionally defined standards-based approach to knowledge and learning.
As with his earlier writing (e.g., Eisner, 1994), Eisner’s philosophy is derived from Dewey’s writings on art, experience, and education. In an argument that hearkens to Dewey’s discussion of knowledge (Dewey and Bentley, 1949), Eisner persuasively asserts that the ambiguity of art is also the nature of knowledge and learning – all knowledge is incomplete and dependent upon context and perspective. In the earlier chapters of The Arts and the Creation of Mind Eisner veers away from Dewey by emphasizing the individual learning that occurs between student and teacher, rather than the learning that can take place within the embryonic community of the classroom. Eisner is clearly more individually focused, in comparison to Dewey’s social focus. While point-by-point ascription to Dewey’s ideas is not necessary for any thinker, this digression from a central Deweyan concern is glaring. As Eisner explicitly represents his ideas as grounded in Dewey’s philosophy, I would expect an acknowledgement of this divergence.
The book is usefully illustrated with children’s artwork as evidence about teaching and children’s creation of “mind.” Despite these full-color plates, it may be inevitable that the written, scholarly, and largely non-literary language Eisner uses is insufficient to convey the breadth and power of art and aesthetic experiences. Furthermore, Eisner’s overwhelming concern for cognitive processes may minimize the importance of emotional and physical experiences that are a part of any engaged person’s life. Scholarly prose cannot easily convey the emotional weight of a poem, painting, or dance, forms of expression that move beyond the linguistic to a fully aesthetic experience.
Although this book is directed to teachers of the arts, its essential ideas of arts and aesthetics as integral components of an active, engaged life are applicable to other fields of study and practice. Philosophers of aesthetics may find little that is new beyond Eisner’s earlier writings, and, indeed, they will find little that pushes our understanding of aesthetics beyond what has been written by Maxine Greene, Arnold Berleant, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty. However, teaching practitioners may find articulation of their own beliefs about an education that is complex and imaginative. As he demonstrates the intellectually rigorous nature of learning art, Eisner compels us continually to consider the role of the arts in all areas of our lives.
Dewey, John. (1934). Art as experience.
Dewey, John, and. Bentley, Arthur F. (1949). Knowing and the known.
Eisner, Elliot W. (1994). Cognition and curriculum reconsidered. 2nd. ed.