In this his first blog responding to Elliot Eisner’s “Lessons”, Ciarán Benson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University College Dublin, examines some of the language and arguments used by Eisner and wonders in the process, whether Eisner’s approach is actually the best way to do it?
I had a sense of unease reading Elliot Eisner’s ‘10 Lessons The Arts Teach’. I wondered whether everything that is claimed for the arts in this list could not equally apply to, say, well-taught history in the curriculum or, for that matter, to the ways in which a progressive science education might work? Eisner’s list attempts to make a case for the distinctiveness or separateness of arts education when, perhaps, the more compelling case might be to show how a good education in the arts could serve to unify personal and social experience, and link with other subjects.
I found myself wondering why Eisner has chosen this particular vocabulary to emphasise – ‘judgment’, ‘indeterminacy’, ‘know’, ‘cognition’, ‘real’ and so on. He does use the word ‘feeling’ but in a curiously muted and general sense. I began to suspect that he was trying to defend art education from a standpoint other than itself, using the vocabulary of the practical, the useful, the ‘rational’. I say this not in criticism, but in recognition. I have done this myself in the past when arguing for a better role for the arts in Irish education. But it now seems dated to me.
I think that if you asked anyone on the street about what it is the arts involve they would be more likely to use words that Eisner avoids, words like ‘imagination’, ‘emotion’, ‘surprise’, ‘lovely’, ‘airy fairy’, ‘playful’, and so on. Why would an authority on the arts curriculum pointedly avoid words like imagination, emotion or play in favour of the – let’s call them for what they are – more sterile and abstract ones that he chooses to use in his ’10 Lessons’? Is it to fit in with the big beasts in the curriculum, or, more specifically, with the language that the ‘serious’ or ‘hard’ subjects easily recruit to support themselves? Is he trying too hard to show the functionality of arts education? And, if he is, is this the best way to do it?
Every age will make sense of itself and of what it does in its own distinctive way, with its own preferred vocabulary, ideas and values. The constant, and now accelerating, invention of new materials and new technologies means that the range of what people can now, and will shortly, experience would be a cause of astonishment to people, including myself, even forty years ago.
We can think of these changes in terms of the collapse of boundaries. I can send a photo I have just taken to a friend in the highlands of Sri Lanka in less than a minute – the diminution of space and time; I can have a conversation in real-time via Skype with someone I have never spoken to before in Alaska who wants to ask me a question – the technological erosion of institutional boundaries; I can add my voice in less than twenty seconds to an urgent petition on Avaaz, campaigning for the rights of indigenous communities in the Amazon – the erosion of traditional political boundaries and their reformation as global communities of interest; or I could follow the example of the first official cyborg, the artist Neil Harbisson, whose antenna, implanted in his head, allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours, such as infrareds and ultraviolets, via sound waves as well as enabling him to receive images as sounds, music or phone calls directly into his head – the erosion of boundaries of self and not-self, of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ me!
The arts, broadly and generously understood, have played a key role in these developments. What the arts teach, or rather what we might now think they can teach, given the astonishing developments they have been partner to over history, ancient and recent, is surely something more than Eisner’s succinct ‘Tweet-like’ list. What such a list lacks is context and the arts are nothing without context. Art would simply not be without its physical, biological, cultural-historical, socio-political contexts. In the next blog, we can elaborate a little on this.