In a culture in which more people watch 'Family Feud' in one night than attend concerts of classical music all year, the marginal place of the arts is understandable. Yet, one hopes that educators would do better. Can those of us who work in education provide the intellectual leadership to give our children a chance to know and perhaps love what only a few know and love? One of my passions is trying to make that happen. 1
Summarizing the career of Elliot Eisner is a daunting task. As one of his former students, I have been asked to introduce him at a few of his speeches. Each time, I was instructed to 'be brief'. I quickly discovered how hard it is to condense the achievements of someone whose contributions and accomplishments have been so expansive and distinguished. At last count, Elliot Eisner's curriculum vitae is ninety-two pages and reveals the markers of notable achievement: Lee Jacks Professor of Education and Art at Stanford University; five honorary degrees since earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1962; election to two European royal societies and to the National Academy of Education in the United States; numerous presidencies of scholarly organizations, from the National Art Education Association to the American Educational Research Association; and several awards for his work, including a Guggenheim fellowship.
He has written 285 articles and fifteen books, averaging about seven published articles per year since 1970. With regards to this body of work, my list of essential Eisner reading would include: The Art of Educational Evaluation (a collection of essays capturing his early ideas), The Educational Imagination (vital for all curriculum workers), Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered (his definitive work on mind and representation), The Enlightened Eye (his major text on qualitative research), Educating Artistic Vision (for all art educators) and The Kind of Schools We Need (a collection of essays on school reform).
That Eisner would turn out to become such a prolific writer on educational topics was hardly expected in his early years. When Elliot's third-grade teacher praised his artistic talent to his mother, she enrolled him in Saturday morning art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. His mother hoped he would become a commercial artist-a position in which he could make money. He did go on to major in art (and education). However, while in college he took a job teaching African-American boys in The American Boys Commonwealth in the neighbourhood in which he grew up in the west side of Chicago. This experience shifted his focus from art to art education. From this shift, however, ideas that would ultimately influence educators around the world began forming. Eisner recognized that schools omitting the arts were providing an unbalanced or inequitable type of education. Moreover, he began to realize that conceptions of cognition lacking artistic modes of thinking were inadequate.
In the context of schooling…we have ideas about the development of mind that are getting in the way of the arts and their potential contribution to educational development. 2