International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 4 Review 2

August 25, 2003

Eisner, Elliot W. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

258 pages
$35.00 (Cloth)     ISBN 0300095236

Reviewed by James G. Henderson
Kent State University

An Overview

Elliot Eisner needs no introduction to the readers of this journal. He is well known for his many creative contributions to the education field on arts-related topics. Eisner has provided cutting-edge thinking for over thirty years on such questions as: how to teach the arts, how is education a form of human artistry, and how should educational artistry be researched. He does not disappoint in this book; and, in fact, this text could be viewed as the definitive statement of his career. He summarizes all of the key educational arguments he has advanced over the years with very concise terminology and cogent rationales. The book is, in essence, a well-organized and coherent set of essays on the following topics: the role of the arts in transforming consciousness, visions and versions of arts education, teaching the visual arts, what the arts teach and how it shows, describing learning in the visual arts, the centrality of curriculum and the function of standards, the educational uses of assessment and evaluation in the arts, what education can learn from the arts, and an agenda for research in arts education. To make sure he is clearly understood, Eisner concludes with a summary of his nine essays. In this final chapter, he presents thirteen “important ideas” for the future of educational research and practice. This point-by-point declaration is not only a useful synopsis; it is also an effective rhetorical method for conveying his educational vision in a set of precisely written statements. Simply stated, this is a must-read book for readers of this journal.

Given the complexity of Eisner’s arguments, there are many ways to read his book. I will briefly provide two such readings, and my comments are a reflection of my own scholarly concerns. The fact that I take this course of action is a testament to the power of Eisner’s essays. I would argue that important educational texts—books that stand the test of time—are generative in nature. They do not provide easy answers to simplistic questions but, rather, foster a deepening understanding of the education art. In one of his essays, Eisner makes this hermeneutic point as follows:

The writer [as critic] starts the process of writing by seeing and by having an emotional response that is then transformed into words intended to capture the flavor of that response. Thus…the writer starts with vision and ends with words. The reader, however, starts with the writer’s words and ends with vision. The circle is complete. (pp. 88-89)

I feel this brief quotation captures the spirit of Eisner’s book and, in fact, of his entire career. In a very basic way, Eisner practices what he preaches. He has a deep feel for arts education and educational artistry. He eloquently articulates this feeling as a vision for the future of the profession, and he invites his reader to share in this vision in his or her own way. As I read his book, two particular visions came to mind. I share them now as my way of completing “the circle” of Eisner’s words.

A Vision of Public Intellectuals

I’ve recently completed teaching a five-week summer seminar that was organized around the following question: Can one work as a public intellectual in the context of one’s academic specialization? Eighteen doctoral students from all of the major Ph.D. Programs in the College of Education at Kent State University took the course. We began the seminar by studying four topics with the assistance of selected chapters from five books (Bender, 1993; Hadot, 2002; Kegan, 2000; Klein, 1990; and Slattery and Rapp, 2003). The topics were:

  • Providing intellectual leadership for transformative learning.
  • The importance of “interdisciplinarity” when addressing pressing public problems in education and human services.
  • Professional ethics under “postmodern” conditions.
  • The meaning and spirit (the hermeneutics) of acquiring a “Doctor of Philosophy” (Ph.D.)—of professing a “love of wisdom.”

The level of enthusiasm in the seminar was a pleasant surprise. The doctoral students were quite passionate in their study of the four topics, and their final papers delved deeply into the personal, professional, cultural and moral complexities of the seminar’s organizing question. It was the type of course where everyone claps at the end in celebration for the quality of the learning that has occurred. In that moment of applause, I was struck by the doctoral students’ determination to find a deeper purpose for their academic socialization; and I can only hope that such a moment turns into a lifelong passion. If it does, they may one day write a book that will be different in its details but equal in spirit to Eisner’s collective essays.

Eisner’s book serves as an inspirational model for public intellectual work in several important ways. In his introductory comments, he articulates a pressing public problem:

The world that students now live in and that they will enter as adults is riddled with ambiguities, uncertainties, the need to exercise judgment in the absence of rule, and the press of the feelingful as a source of information for making difficult choices. (p. xii)

He then states that there are ways that art education, in particular, and educational artistry, in general, can provide educational solutions to this problem and that the purpose of his essays is to explore these ways. And this is exactly what he proceeds to do in unadorned, clear language. He writes for a general audience on a significant public matter. He works out of a broad interdisciplinary perspective and attempts to inspire deep personal insights on important moral matters. Though he possesses expertise as both an art educator and curriculum scholar, he thinks beyond the confines of particular academic communities. He works as a far-sighted humanist, not as a narrow educational expert. He writes for all of our futures, and he ends his book with these words:

Those of us who have worked in the arts, who have taught the arts, who have tried to understand what the arts contribute to the development of human consciousness can feel a sense of pride that our legacy is one that attempts to engender life at its most vital level. The arts make such vitality possible. They are sources of deep enrichment for all of us. (p.241)

As I reflect on Eisner’s book, I imagine a future where an increasing number of academics will work as public intellectuals. I picture a time when texts like his will serve as exemplars for doctoral socialization.

A Vision of Democratic Educators

I was inspired by another vision of our educational future as I read Eisner’s essays. I imagine a time when an increasing number of educators, functioning as connoisseurs and critics of the democratic “good life,” will reject the current dominant paradigm of curriculum decision-making. This paradigm is based on a very straightforward command-and-control logic associated with approaching education as an efficient business. Educational standards are clearly identified and translated into standardized outputs, and curriculum is aligned to these outputs in order to streamline student “achievement.” Students are mandated to take periodic tests of these standardized outputs so that there can be a proper public accounting of their educational progress. The results of these standardized tests are publicized and have several “high stakes” consequences, including school districts’ financial support, administrators’ job security, and students’ timely grade promotion and graduation. Cuban (2003) summarizes three key assumptions of this decision-making paradigm:

  • They assumed that better management, rigorous academic standards, increased competition among schools for students, and incentives and penalties would produce better teaching and learning and higher test scores.
  • They assumed that the best measures of improved teaching and learning are taking more academic subjects, scoring well on standardized tests, securing credentials, and moving into skilled jobs.
  • They assumed that penalties and rewards get teachers to teach better and students to learn more. (p.19)

I imagine a future where increasing numbers of educators will daily work on cultivating their capacities to exercise democratically wise curriculum judgments (Henderson and Kesson, 2004). Curriculum wisdom can be described as a “doubled” problem solving. There is, first, the effort to be practical—to solve the immediate problem or problems one is facing. This is a context-specific and fairly straightforward means/end way of operating: admit there is a problem, work on defining the problem, decide how to solve the problem, work on the solution, and periodically evaluate the results of your actions. A wisdom orientation takes this decision-making to a deeper level. The focus is still on solving an immediate problem—after all, the concept of wisdom denotes such practicality; but now, the goal is to solve the problem with reference to a conception of the “good” life. This is a more complicated means/end and means/visionary end way of operating. The search for practical solutions is transformed into an aspiration to advance a critically informed moral vision.

Democratic curriculum wisdom is based on a particular “logic” of inquiry (Burke, 1994; Dewey 1938), which can be described as the disciplined study of democracy as a moral basis of living. “Democracy” is typically understood as a type of government. To approach democracy as a way of life—or, as Dewey (1989) puts it, “a moral standard for personal conduct” (p.101)—is to extend a democratic outlook to all aspects of one’s daily living. Such an approach requires a sophisticated form of understanding because there is no ultimate definition for “democratic morality”—no final democratic doctrine. At best, there are only informed interpretations. The educator must acknowledge and work with the ambiguity and plurality inherent in his or her search for the “democratic good life.” Tracy (1987) provides insight into this way of working. He argues that moral understanding in the context of religious diversity is best handled as a “plurality of interpretations and methods.” (p.112) He explains:

We find ourselves with diverse religious classics among many religious traditions. …The conflicts on how to interpret religion, the conflicts caused by the opposing claims of the religions themselves, and the internal conflicts within any great religion all affect interpreters, whether they will it or not. None of these conflicts is easily resolved, and no claim to certainty, whether religionist or secularist, should pretend otherwise. …Einstein once remarked that with the arrival of the atomic age everything had changed except our thinking. Unfortunately the remark is true. Perhaps contemporary reflections on interpretation, with their emphasis on plurality and ambiguity, are one more stumbling start, across the disciplines, to try to change our usual ways of thinking. (pp. 112-114)

Interpretations of “democratic morality” begin at the point where plurality and ambiguity are embraced; otherwise, the resulting understanding cannot be “democratic.” When religious morality is interpreted in the spirit of plurality and ambiguity, it informs the “democratic good life.” However, when religious morality is reduced to rigid doctrines and ideological litmus tests (i.e., “true beliefs”), a “democratic” way of life can only be practiced by carefully separating church and state.

The future democratic educators I envision would resonate with Eisner’s essays for a number of reasons. They would applaud the way he quickly establishes critical distance from the dominant paradigm of curriculum decision-making in his introductory comments:

Efficiency is largely a virtue for the tasks we don’t like to do; few of us like to eat a great meal efficiently or to participate in a wonderful conversation efficiently, or indeed to make love efficiently. What we enjoy the most we linger over. A school system designed with an overriding commitment to efficiency may produce outcomes that have little enduring quality. (p. xiii)

They would agree with his definition of education as “the process of learning to create ourselves” (p.3) because they interpret curriculum as envisioning and enacting a democratic good life. Like Eisner, they believe, “Humans, of all living species, have the distinctive…ability to create a culture through which those in their community can grow” (p.3), and they think this broad “cultural” approach to education is the best frame of reference for curriculum problem solving.

These democratic educators would find Eisner’s essays on artistry, evaluation, standards, and research to be particularly enlightening and helpful. Because they do not function as narrow, unimaginative technicians, they would be drawn to Eisner’s definition of artistry: “By artistry, I mean a form of practice informed by the imagination that employs technique to select and organize expressive qualities to achieve ends that are aesthetically satisfying” (p. 49, author’s emphasis). This definition captures the spirit of their wisdom orientation as they attempt to interject an imaginative, visionary feel for the democratic “good life” into the full range of their curriculum practices, including designing, organizing, teaching, and evaluating.

Eisner’s discussion of educational assessment and evaluation confirms and supports their professional orientation. Because they have established critical distance from the dominant paradigm of curriculum decision-making, they don’t confuse measuring with valuing, and they appreciate Eisner’s insights on this matter:

Assessment and evaluation are often confounded with measurement, but there is no necessary connection between evaluating and measuring or between assessing and measuring. Measuring has to do with determining magnitude. Measures of magnitude are description of quantity. They are not appraisals of the value of what has been measured. Assessment and evaluation are preeminently valuative; they ask about the merits of something. (p.180)

Given their wisdom orientation, they accept the responsibility of practicing informed value judgments; and, like Eisner, their evaluative focus is not on test scores but on consequences for lifelong learning. They applaud Eisner when he writes, “The aim of the educational process inside schools is not to finish something, but to start something. It is not to cover the curriculum, but to uncover it.” (p.90) And what they want to “uncover” for their students is the democratic good life. To paraphrase John Dewey, they believe education is not preparation for democratic living; it is the direct experience of this way of living (as much as circumstances will allow).

Because they assume responsibility for the practice of informed value judgments, these future democratic educators are most interested in Eisner’s discussion of how educational standards can either facilitate or inhibit curriculum decision-making. Eisner notes that, “standards are used in education both as values and as units of measures” (p. 168); and only when educational standards are translated into “criteria that can be used to make judgments” (p.173), do they support educational artistry. He writes: “The idea of using the process of formulating standards as a heuristic is, to me, especially appealing. It provides a focus for discussion, deliberation, debate, analysis, and ultimately clarification regarding the aims one wants to achieve in a classroom, a school, or even a school district.” (p.173)

This is exactly how the democratic educators would work. They are interested in standards of subject matter expertise, but they want these standards to be articulated as explicit criteria that allow for judgments about the quality of democratic living in the classroom, in the school, and in the school district and its surrounding community/society. They create criteria for subject matter understanding that reflect democratic self and social understanding (Dewey, 1963; Henderson and Hawthorne, 2000), and they recognize that this more holistic “3S” approach (referring to an integrated approach to subject matter, self and social learning) addresses what is often “hidden” or “null” in a curriculum. They are willing to “uncover” ugly truths about dogmatic, authoritarian, unjust, and elitist structures and practices.

Finally, these future democratic educators will be most interested in Eisner’s analysis of seven “shifts” in the current beliefs about educational research. He argues that the following research assumptions are increasingly problematic:

  • “real” research requires quantification…
  • the experiment [is the]…way to understand the effects of educational practice…
  • the aim of research is to discover true and objective knowledge…
  • objective knowledge describes something as it really is…
  • generalizations must be statistical in character…
  • research is, and can only be the result of scientific inquiry…
  • through research we will find out what works and that once we know, it will tell us what to do and how. (pp.210-214, author’s emphasis)

He concludes his critical analysis with the following comment: “The ultimate implication of these shifts is not to discard scientific research, but to recognize that it has no monopoly on the ways in which humans inquire….” (p.214)

The future democratic educators would applaud this conclusion. Because their curriculum decision-making is based on “arts” of inquiry (Henderson and Kesson, 2004), they welcome the fact that educational researchers may increasingly work with a “more liberal conception of method.” (p. 215). They are as excited about the artistic and humanistic possibilities of educational research as they are about the artistic and humanistic possibilities of their own curriculum practices. Their goal or, more accurately, their passion is to facilitate the quality of their students’ educational life. Research that provides deep insights into this life would, indeed, be embraced and studied, and they would be enthusiastic consumers of research that aspired to the inspirational heights and poetic depths of great literature.

I have briefly presented two possible readings of Eisner’s book. Given the complexity of his essays, many other readings are certainly possible. He has composed a text that is as insightful and inspirational as the educational research he envisions.


Bender, T. (1993). Intellect and public life: Essays on the social history of academic intellectuals in the United States. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Burke, T. (1994). Dewey’s new logic: A reply to Russell. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cuban, L. (2003). Why is it so hard to get good schools? New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1938). Logic: The theory of inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan. (Original work published in 1938).

Dewey, J. (1989). Freedom and culture. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. (Original work published 1939)

Hadot, P. (2002). What is ancient philosophy? Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Henderson, J. G., & Hawthorne, R. D. (2000). Transformative curriculum leadership (2nd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Henderson, J. G., & Kesson, K. R. (2004). Curriculum Wisdom: Educational Decisions in Democratic Societies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Kegan, R. (2000). “What “form” transforms: A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning.” In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 35-69). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Klein, J. T. (1990). Interdisciplinarity: History, theory, and practice. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Slattery, P., & Rapp, D. (2003). Ethics and the foundations of education: Teaching convictions in a postmodern world. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Tracy, D. (1987). Plurality and ambiguity: Hermeneutics, religion, hope. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

About the Author

James G. Henderson is a Professor of Curriculum Studies at Kent State University where he teaches graduate courses in curriculum leadership and theory. His research focuses on the art of curriculum judgment in democratic societies. He has individually or collaboratively published over fifty essays and books on this subject. His book, Reflective Teaching: Professional Artistry through Inquiry, introduces teachers to inquiry-based reflection. His co-authored book, Transformative Curriculum Leadership, provides guidance for inspiring and nurturing curriculum judgment. His recently completed co-authored book, Curriculum Wisdom: Educational Decisions in Democratic Societies, explores the arts of inquiry embedded in pragmatic curriculum decisions.

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