More than one answer please

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Heather Neill hears an American academic argue the case for arts education

There was a melancholy aptness about the timing. The day after David Blunkett announced the stripping down to basics of the primary curriculum, Professor Elliot Eisner from Stanford University addressed the Royal Society of Arts on the subject "What do the arts teach?".

The occasion was the centenary of the National Association of Head Teachers and the audience responded with delighted enthusiasm while bemoaning the fact that, once again, the arts in our schools are under siege.

Professor Eisner, a painter and school teacher in Chicago before he became an academic, is an idealist, but not a romantic. Neither does he take the obvious route to getting the arts accepted by the unpersuaded.

He does not claim that learning music or any other art improves a child's academic results. "If we build our church on that, other disciplines might have just as much claim."

While crusading for the arts in their own right, Professor Eisner is enthusiastic about a study being undertaken by the RSA and National Foundation for Educational Research on the effect of learning about the arts on other subjects. He feels we lack detailed and reliable data.

So what should the beleaguered arts education community be arguing? Professor Eisner believes that the arts encourage a way of looking at, assessing and appreciating the world, of seeing things afresh and learning to make critical judgments about them.

This leads to an ability to value subtlety, to an understanding that there are no easy answers, that the relationships between things - words in poetry, movements in dance - have a "rightness of fit".

The arts, Professor Eisner says, teach that problems may have more than one solution: "If they do anything the arts celebrate diversity." Besides, problem-solving, in how, for instance, to express a particular emotion in painting or performance, can lead to discovery. "In the arts one looks for surprise."

Most importantly for educators, the arts show that knowledge is not reducible to the literal. Other, less quantifiable means of expression are valid. Professor Eisner acknowledges the importance of basic literacy and numeracy, saying that "a couple of hours a day devoted to them is not excessive. But if students are not performing properly in these areas, the problem may not be how the residue of the time is allocated, but the way children are taught".

Professor Eisner values the particular characteristics of conversation about art, the attempt to describe what cannot be easily reduced to words by employing metaphor. "Learning to talk about the arts enables you to learn to see. So much in education has one answer."

He speaks enthusiastically of his own classroom experience. While appreciating his pupils' spontaneity, he did not take the development of perception for granted. "If exposure to the arts was sufficient, museum attendants would be the most sophisticated people in the world."

Considering the move to an even more basic curriculum in both Britain and the US, he says that "when people get anxious they prescribe and monitor".

As things are, Professor Eisner says, "we want everyone to be at the same place at the same time. School should be about increasing variety, giving options for each youngster."

He quotes poet and philosopher Herbert Reed who, when asked how much school time should be given to the arts, said "all of it", meaning that a person who makes things well is an artist. For Elliot Eisner, the aesthetic approach should pervade the teaching of all disciplines. Elliot Eisner's lecture will be published in the RSA journal in April

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