The Arts as Knowing

by Scott T. Massey

The inclusion of the arts in the new national goals and standards provides an excellent opportunity to reinvestigate the role of art in the process of learning. More than simply achieving­at last­ admission into the pantheon of the "basic" school curriculum, the inclusion of the arts in the national standards is an invitation to teachers, specialists, artists, community leaders, and education reformers to look more carefully at the arts as a form of cognition.

For the arts have significant structures which are often neglected in favor of so-called "affective" qualities. The arts are a powerful symbol system, like that of number and language; they are multi-sensory and engage multiple forms of intelligence; they employ distinctive, non linear forms of thinking and problem-solving; and they create some of our most powerful forms of symbolic communication. Indeed, new understandings of knowing and learning, and even new economic trends, are coming together to support the idea that the arts are a fundamental model of knowing and learning. Far from being peripheral to the basic business of learning and knowing in school, the arts embody processes of thinking and learning that are central to the new types of "knowers" needed for the emerging "knowledge society". Viewed from this vantage point, the arts may not only join other subjects in the "core" curriculum, but take a central place. In this essay, I would like to sketch some of the reasons for this claim.

Economic changes are perhaps the most obvious factors reshaping education at the present time. It is now a commonplace to note that American schools are still basically organized on an industrial model developed in the last century to prepare people to work in the industrial economy. A new economic order is now emerging, however, and this economic order is based on information and knowledge, not on materials and manufacturing. Aware of this, American corporations have taken a leading role in insisting on restructuring schools to adapt them to the needs of the emerging "knowledge" economy and society.

In The Work of Nations, Robert Reich argues that whatever one's job title may be, there are now only three job functions that are economically meaningful­routine production workers, in-person service providers, and what he calls "symbol analysts." Symbol analysts are the new workers of the knowledge economy, who create value through the analysis of symbols (information), the addition of design, and the creation of new ideas. According to Reich, the work of the symbol analyst is the engine driving the new emerging global economy.

The kind of skills needed by symbol analysts are quite different from the skills needed by the workers and managers of the industrial era. The "new basics" being demanded by the new economy are skills that are centered in design, communication, and learning. Walter Wriston, former CEO of Citibank has written, "information is the new raw material of wealth and opportun-ity...sorting out opportunities from an overwhelming flow of information is now the prime responsibility of any good management" (The Decline of Sovereignty). In other words, the ability to learn, to discern patterns, interest points, and other qualities of creative design are key skills for the information age.

From this brief sketch, we see that economic forces connected with the emerging knowledge society are creating a need for a "new basics" for schools. These new basics are not simply higher-order thinking skills but different order thinking skills. These skills relate to communication and design­to creating value through the creation of meaning­and this is at the heart of the creative process of the arts. Also fundamental in this new economic order is the ability to continue to learn­to love learning­and again, the creative process is a basic model for continuous, highly-motivated learning.

Reflecting on learning carries us into the next area to look at new understandings about the nature of knowledge.

For at least the past 400 years in the West, we have entertained the view that knowledge is stable, sequential, provable, and finite. Sir Isaiah Berlin has given a succinct statement of this viewpoint in the The Crooked Timber of Humanity. According to Berlin, we have believed that "a) to all genuine questions there is one true answer and one only...b) that the true answers to such questions are in principle knowable; and c) that these true answers cannot clash with each other...according to some they form a logical system each ingredient of which logically entails and is entailed by all the other elements" (p. 209). This view of knowledge has provided the framework for thinking about schools and curriculum.

Contrast with this view our new understandings of knowledge as a dynamic, changing system. Instead of speaking of "knowledge", in fact, it might be better to speak of "knowing". This emphasizes the on-going activity involved. Instead of seeing knowledge as a sequentially constructed building based on a foundation of "basic" truth and knowledge, we are now realizing that knowledge is a dynamic and ever-expanding field. The process of knowing, likewise, is not a passive storage of information and skill, but an active, creative process. Even in math and science­the old bastions of stable, building-block knowledge­we find evidence of continuous rethinking, re-drawing of conceptual lines, and creative large-scale revisions of the type described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

In other areas, cognitive psychology is revealing to us more about the role of the mind in the active construction of knowledge and experience. We are just beginning to understand how dynamic the relation between the knower and the known truly is. Information theory and complexity theory are also adding to the picture with powerful new tools for understanding systems that are not simple, linear systems. Learning and knowing are themselves examples of complex, non-linear systems, and we are just now beginning to have the conceptual tools to understand them appropriately.

The educational "bottom line" to all these new understandings about the nature of knowing is that the old academic categories about subjects and about curriculum construction no longer make sense. The student of today faces a vast universe of knowledge that is not only larger in scale than that of the past, but is also in a state of dynamic change. Knowledge is growing exponentially, theories are continuously reshaped, and cultures and disciplines are intersecting and interacting in new and unpredictable ways. It no longer makes practical sense, nor is it intellectually sound to approach the curriculum as we have in the past.

Ernest Boyer recently said in this journal, "The truth is that the old academic boxes do not fit the new intellectual questions. Some of the most exciting work going on in the academy today is in the 'hyphenated disciplines'­in bioengineering and psycho-linguistics and the like­in what Michael Polanyi calls the 'overlapping academic neighborhoods.'"

Boyer goes on to say, "During the coming decades, we will see a fundamental reshaping of the typology of knowledge as profound as that which occurred i the nineteenth century....And wouldn't it be tragic if a nineteenth-century curriculum design continued to be imposed on schools at the very time scholars were redefining the structure of knowledge for the twenty-first century?... Wouldn't it be exciting, as we move toward the next century, if we would start to rethink the nature of the new knowledge that related not to the last century but to the coming century? How can we organize knowledge in a way that seems to make it relevant and powerful for students in the days ahead? Wouldn't it be exciting if both kindergarten teachers and college professors could view knowledge using understandable categories that would be newly integrated and would spiral upward in common discourse?" (Summer 1994, p.11).

This reshaping of the "typology of knowledge" that Boyer speaks of will include the arts. The arts will be repositioned in the new intellectual landscape. The opportunity now exists for the arts to reexamine themselves as a form of thinking and knowing, and to assume a central intellectual role in schools of the knowledge society. The arts as a creative process provide, I believe, a unique standpoint for the construction of a new curriculum that addresses the new "basics" of the knowledge society and is true to the "new typology of knowledge" to which Boyer refers.

I would add to Boyer's list of tantalizing questions, Wouldn't it be exciting to include creative artists in the process of reshaping schools? Wouldn't it be exciting to design ways to incorporate the arts and the creative process of art-making into new, non-sequential curricula that are created proactively by teachers and students? Wouldn't it be exciting to rethink the nature of learning so that the creative, constructive process that we now see to be the basis of knowing would become dominant in the teaching and learning process in schools? Wouldn't it be exciting to shift our focus in schools from "knowledge transmission and storage" to "knowledge understanding and creation"­from knowledge acquisition to generating and creating knowledge?

Looking at knowing as a creative, constructive process leads us to consider how the arts themselves may be viewed as a form of knowing.

To look at the arts as a fundamental form of knowing and learning is to look at the arts in a different way from that usually accepted. Of course, the arts may be approached validly from many different perspectives. On the one hand, the arts may be viewed as a formal discipline or training to be given to develop individual, specialized talents. Programs that give a primary value to performance skills focus on this approach. In addition, the arts may be viewed as historical artifacts that figure in a special history­the history of art; they may be viewed from the point of view of the many forms of arts criticism as the data for critical analysis as works of art; and they may be viewed as data and examples for the many different theories of aesthetics that have been developed.

On the other hand, the arts may be viewed as a symbol system­like language and numbers are symbol systems­that has been created as a mode of knowing. Number systems have been created to help us describe certain features of the world that are invisible without numbers. Language is another symbol system that has been created to help us delineate features of experience and the world. Artistic symbols are another symbol system­non-verbal and non mathematical­that demarcate otherwise invisible features of the world and our experience. Symbols act like the contour lines of the map maker to delineate features of the world. They stabilize, fix, give direction and meaning to the "blooming buzz" of experience. A subject comes to know through the act of creating and manipulating symbols in the mapping of experience.

From this perspective, the arts are a major symbol system and a basic form of knowing. A work of art represents an artist's attempt to map some experience in forms that capture the essence of the experience and communicate it to others. The artistic process, then, is seen as a continuous process of noticing, symbolization, re-attending, and revision.

At the classroom level, viewing the arts as a symbol system and form of knowing/learning would involve students in their own process of noticing, creating, viewing works of art, reflecting, and documenting their own process of experience and discovery.

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a flight of fancy. Lynn Olson has written in a recent issue of Education Week (November 2, 1994) that "reformers not only have to reach large numbers of schools and teachers and citizens, they must also change people's fundamental conceptions of what good teaching and learning look like." Developing this vision of how new schools will look is perhaps the most difficult barrier to real school reform. The changes coming for our economy, our society, and our schools are hard to visualize. But looking from the vantage of the arts, let us imagine what schools could be.

Imagine schools in which works of art and other "worthy objects of study" are made directly available to students as rich and challenging primary source materials for active investigations. Imagine multimedia and telecommunications making these resources available instantly across time and space for young people in schools. Imagine these rich materials being the "gateways" or "anchors" for integrated curricula that help students make connections among ideas and disciplines. Imagine an on-going series of aesthetic experiences permeating the learning process and motivating curiosity and discovery. Imagine schools in which teachers and students collaborate in the design of the curricular projects and investigations that spiral out of the rich source materials of the arts. Imagine schools in which student work is itself regarded as a "work of art"­that is, student learning is grounded in creative inquiry, then artfully rendered into Process Portfolios that tell the story of the learner's journey with power and beauty. Imagine schools that support reflection and real intellectual growth for their faculties, and which support students in reflecting on their own work and growth. Imagine schools that have broken the glass walls between the school and the community to become centers of learning through which artists, artworks from cultural organizations, researchers, academic leaders and other experts from science, math, history, business, etc., flow.

The Leonard Bernstein Center, a national research and development center that uses the arts and technology as a new approach to learning, is working to refine visions like this, and to translate such visions into reality. Beginning with a five year research project in one K-6 public school (the Eakin School), the Bernstein Center is now in the second stage of design for its school programs. Ten public schools­from K 12­are involved in a two year project to develop concrete models of reform shaped by the Center's five core strategies. Experts in math and science from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, artists from local cultural institutions and universities, top staff from Metro Nashville Publi Schools are all involved in planning and design for this project.

At the school level, each school has a Design Team of teachers, parents, and the principal who work to develop the overall plan for the school. Each school also has a Focus Classroom that receives weekly in-class consultation and support from Artistic Design Consultants from the Center. From this two-year project, a national network of like-minded teachers and schools will be initiated, with model curricula, assessment tools, models for the use of art and technology, and models for teacher professional development and reflection drawn from the work of these ten schools.

Leonard Bernstein knew the power of the arts to reach people and to stimulate learning­he embodied and symbolizes this power. The Bernstein Center represents a magnificent opportunity to transmit Bernstein's educational legacy into a living legacy for our schools. The new economic forces of the knowledge society and the new understandings of knowledge support a central role for the arts in learning. Leonard Bernstein is the perfect symbol for catalyzing these forces into a coherent vision and action. The Bernstein Center is dedicated to this mission.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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