Thursday, October 15, 2009

Elliot Eisner, non-linguistic intelligence

I realize that when I, a craftsman, challenge academia for failure to acknowledge the intelligence expressed through the hands, some might be offended. After all, who am I, a simple teacher and craftsman to challenge modern education? But my purpose is not to offend, but to simply assert the value, the intelligence, and dignity of hands-on work and hands-on learning. To that end, I quote the following from Elliot Eisner's the Arts and the Creation of Mind:
...a lesson that the arts can teach education is that literal language and quantification are not the only means through which human understanding is secured or represented. So much of schooling privileges discursive language and the use of number that types of intelligence and forms of understanding not represented in these forms are given marginal status. It must be acknowledged, of course, that the abilities to read, to write, and to compute are of crucial importance. Students who cannot read, write, or compute are in deep trouble. But important though these skills are, they do not encompass all of what people know or the ways in which what they know is given public status. We appeal to poetry to say what cannot be expressed in literal language. We secure from images ideas and other forms of experience that elude discursive description. We experience through music qualities of lived experience that cannot be rendered in quantitative form. In short, our sensibilities and the forms of representation associated with them make distinctive contributions to what we notice, grasp and understand. As Pascal said, "The heart has its reasons that the head knows not."
The current plan in Texas to eliminate wood shop programs from the state approved curriculum is evidence of the failure of academia to grasp the value of hands-on learning and hands-expressed intelligence. According to Eisner, "The long term result of such deprivation is a diminution of the varieties of life that students are able to lead."


  1. A very "intelligent" 5.5 yr old boy in my class (who reads at a 3rd grade level and is doing 2nd grade math) struggled mightily today to sew a button, yet finally succeeded and learned important lessons on perseverance and asking for help.

    The joy I felt at seeing his accomplishment was dimmed only by the realization that his father, upon learning of his child's choice of work, would question why he was paying so much tuition if his child was going to school to learn to sew.

    I thought of you as I watched his under-used fingers fumble with the needle, and was thankful for the work of hands.

  2. Here's a more cynical interpretation: linguistic and computational abilities are needed to serve the ends of employers. Poetry, the aesthetic pleasures of visual arts, music - these serve the needs of the individual. They enhance quality of life in non-quantifiable ways.

    Our political discourse has become impoverished to the point where government spending has to be justified in terms of economic productivity. Universal health care? Justified in terms of cost savings, not because people might actually have a better quality of life. Spending on education? Justified in terms of potential economic prosperity.

    Those families with sufficient means and values can always choose "enrichment" activities for their own children. Providing "enrichment" for other people's children is a tougher sell (but you've already heard me write something to that effect). You're able to do your good work in a private school that - presumably - parents have chosen in part due to compatible values. I find it sad that the public at large - no, strike that, I mean politicians at large - won't fund similar "enrichment" in public schools.

  3. Toysmith, as you can see from Montessorimatters' comment, the misunderstanding about school's role in children's enrichment isn't just in public schools. And what some would call enrichment is much more than that when you begin to understand that all the important parts of human culture are derived from the "enrichment."

    The qualities that make employees effective in corporations are their enrichment activities, not merely their linguistic and computational ones. Those engaged in the arts bring power of mind to the job unequaled by the steady drone of computational understanding. Those involved in the arts are better prepared for creative problem solving and thinking outside the box. For a child to develop skill sewing on a button could be (with some encouragement) the start of an incredibly fulfilling life long creative passion that pays off in ways we might never anticipate.

    We are facing what Matti Bergström calls being "values damaged". Our range of values is reduced to the point at which the only defensible and rational and justifiable value in most people's minds is the dollar. The direct consequence as described by Bergström of not learning to work with our hands... the work of which instills a broad range of cultural values.