Does Experience in the Arts Boost Academic Achievement? A Response to Eisner

Article excerpt

More than a little attention is given these days to notions that engagements with the arts help children succeed in school. Reasons for the stir surely include the popularization of Gardner's ideas about multiple intelligences (1983) as well as contemporary media attention given to research by University of California neuroscientists linking music training to cognitive development (Rauscher et al., 1997. Arguments touting academic instrumentality are whipped along by advocates of the arts who understandably hope to bring any and all ammunition to school boards and legislatures to press their case for enhanced funding or for restoration of long-lost arts programs.

Eisner is troubled by these developments, and his reaction is swift and reasonable. He is concerned that, buried by enthusiasm for instrumental or academic purposes for the arts, a proper appreciation for arts-based and arts-related outcomes of arts education may be forgotten. He fears that without a clear focus on the primary arts-embracing goals of art education-and with instrumental arguments for the arts skating on thin ice-our society risks losing any sense whatsoever that arts education is important

Eisner employs two approaches to foster appreciation for the more arts-focused goals. First, he provides a three-tiered scheme to help readers perceive and sort out the various arts-centered and ancillary ends we expect from arts education-and he is his ever-lucid self in organizing and providing images for the purposes he describes.

Eisner then constructs a scathing critique of the state of research linking the arts with academic outcomes. Eisner tires of being peppered with assertions about the arts and thinking skills, or music and geometry. An effective retort, especially if you are a renowned authority both in arts education and education research, is to disarm the opposition by undermining its standing and credibility. Eisner believes the case for the arts and academic learning is oversold and must be downsizedthereby clearing the way for arguments about what the arts should do.

But on close scrutiny, Eisner's thesis, especially his critique of existing research, encounters disabling problems of its own: a) The literature review barely scratches the surface of research on academic outcomes associated with the arts; b) The analysis does not hold its assertive claims for the arts-based and arts-related outcomes of arts education to the same standard of evidence it invokes to criticize studies reporting ancillary outcomes of arts education. It presents no evidence whatsoever for these primary outcomes; and c) The analysis fails to acknowledge widely accepted theories about the importance of representation in cognition and human development and the role artistic representations can play in developing understandings. According to this theoretical orientation, both "reading" works of art and creating expressions in artistic forms have legitimate roles to play in designs for teaching and learning. This last shortcoming seems ironic, since Eisner has made a great mark in the larger fields of educational research and evaluation by honoring and promoting expanded thinking about representational forms -in a way that supports the important potential roles of the arts in many areas of teaching and learning, including the academic. Let's turn to each issue in more detail.


To get a sounding of current research, Eisner surveyed six academic journals over a 10-year period as well as several contemporary research compendia. While this selection could be described as the start of a research review, it is barely a start. A wide range of mainstream education research journals and specialized arts education journals have witnessed increasing numbers of studies describing links between the arts and academic learning since about 1990.

One prominent example is an entire recent issue of the Harvard Education Review devoted to the arts and learning (Goldberg & Phillips, 1992). …