The Arts as the Basics of Education

By Egan, Kieran | Childhood Education, September 15, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Arts as the Basics of Education


Egan, Kieran, Childhood Education


A local Canadian school, in its newsletter to parents, has been boasting that it offers its students "job-ready skills." The school has been tailoring its curriculum to "produce" precisely what various local employers seem to want. This responsiveness to the "marketplace," to the "consumers of the schools' products," is considered entirely admirable by many local politicians, who are, after all, the school's paymasters.

Such pressure on schools not only is felt at the senior secondary level, but also is evident throughout the system - even in programs for very young children. When Cedric Cullingford asked a wide sample of primary school children why they were at school, he was surprised to hear from most of the children that the first purpose of school was to prepare them for "jobs" (Cullingford, 1985, 1986).

At present, one can easily justify curriculum time being spent on activities that seem to lead directly to skills of practical use in adulthood. Accordingly, the "basics" of education are usually thought to be the early development of skills that will later be useful in employment. It is becoming easier for those promoting computer literacy, for example, to argue for curriculum time on the grounds that computer skills will be useful when searching for jobs. Thus, computer literacy is rapidly becoming yet another "basic," competing for precious teaching time.

How can the arts defend themselves from increasing marginalization as schools give more and more curriculum time to "basic" skills? I would like to suggest that the problem we find ourselves in - increasingly being forced to sideline the arts even though we recognize their centrality to education - is in part tied up in having accepted mistaken ideas about education. That is, I want to make the uncomfortable case that the problem stems from a set of ideas that most readers of this article probably take for granted.

These ideas have a long history, and were put into their modern familiar form by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). They were then adapted by American psychologists, philosophers and educators, such as William James, John Dewey, G. Stanley Hall and Edward Thorndike. The ideas also influenced Jean Piaget. These influential thinkers and researchers reinforced Spencer's ideas and helped them become truisms about children's thinking and learning that are taken for granted by most educators.

Spencer proclaimed that in educating children, "we should proceed from the simple to the complex . . . from the indefinite to the definite . . . from the particular to the general . . . from the concrete to the abstract . . . from the empirical to the rational . . . . Every study, therefore," he argued, "should have a purely empirical introduction . . . children should be led to make their own investigations, and draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible" (Low-Beer, 1969, p. 75).

The problem with these ideas is that they assume that children's intellectual development follows a path similar to their biological development. Spencer adapted these ideas from evolutionary biology, a biology since discredited (see Gould, 1996), and applied them directly to education. Jean Piaget's influential theory is similarly built on a biological conception of development. It is a "hierarchical integrative" theory, in which the child is represented as accumulating skills in stages, each set of which is incorporated and enlarged by the further skills acquired in the subsequent stage. The adult is thus seen as an elaboration of all the capacities that are simply embryonic in childhood.

The result of Spencer's ideas, and the support Piaget has lent to them, is a view of education as a place where basic skills are first taught; these skills are refined and then put to practical use in adult society. What is wrong with this reasoning?

We Begin As Poets

That view is erroneous because the human mind does not develop like the rest of the biological world in one very important way. …

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