Elliot Eisner was an American educational artist who argued strongly for the arts in education. His prolific output, in 15 books, argued relentlessly for a rebalance in the curriculum towards the arts. He thought that schooling was based on a false view of cognition, far too rigid and rational.
Interestingly, his appeal for arts education was not based on its creative or aesthetic potential but a a wider view of cognition not limited by its focus on quantitative evaluation, behavioural objectives and bias towards scientific and industrial metaphors. Text, in itself, is not enough, we must see that other firms of artistic expression also matter. Minds for Eisner, are both biological, and importantly, cultural. His is a learning theory grounded in a broad view of human nature.
Rejecting naïve assumptions, such as the view that children are naturally creative, he was against arts education that simply provided children with materials and let them create on their own. This diminished the arts, seeing it as a form of emotional release. Art is much more important to the mind than as a cathartic or therapeutic activity. It was, like other subjects, a serious, intellectual and content-rich activity. He was not in favour of glib assertions about ‘creativity’ and did not see the arts as having a monopoly on creativity.
DBAE (Discipline-Based Arts Education)
Backed by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, Eisner saw this as a curriculum issue. Arts education needs to be central and productive in terms of aesthetic appreciation, critical approach, also history. He promoted the arts, not as a sideline, but as a core curriculum issue, where all children must be given the opportunity to understand and experience artistic endeavour. Children need drama and educational experiences wider than mere academic objectives.
Picking up on art criticism, he wanted the arts to be actively pursued through description, discussion, interpretation, evaluation and even moral instruction. This has been called the arts-based inquiry movement which sees arts content as a significant form of educational content.
An heir to Ruskin and Read, he pushed for a view of education that became the norm in many schooling systems, with the arts having an important place in the curriculum. He was a counter to the pressure on schools to lean towards instrumental subjects and outcomes, rather than the intrinsic needs of the cultured mind. Like Read, he looks for deep cultural roots as a basis for his learning theory. More than this he gave arts education a cognitive grounding that was previously absent. This debate resonates today where the move to fund STEM subjects has put pressure on the arts. Some have argued that STEAM is a more appropriate acronym but Eisner reminds us that this is not about mind-limiting acronyms, it is about the deepest aspects of what it is to human, our minds and our culture.
Eisner, E.W., 2005. Reimagining schools: The selected works of Elliot W. Eisner. Routledge.
Eisner, E.W., 1979. The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs. New York: Macmillan.
Eisner, E.W., 2017. The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Teachers College Press.
Eisner, E.W., 1985. The art of educational evaluation: A personal view. Taylor & Francis.
Eisner, E.W., 2002. The arts and the creation of mind. Yale University Press.
Eisner, E.W., 1972. Educating artistic vision.
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