Creating the critical connoisseur

All of us are critical connoisseurs. That is, we are relatively expert at something for which we can differentiate quality when we see/hear/touch/smell it. For some it’s music (the guitar aficionado who can instantly tell whether they are listening to Williams or Bream, Clapton or Blackmore) and for others it’s cheese (though I for one can’t tell the difference between camembert and brie).

But what about education? While stumbling through my PhD, I became entranced with the work of Elliot W. Eisner, and in particular his notion of the critical connoisseur. His wonderful book The Enlightened Eye (another engaging term for the critical connoisseur) was my focus, being that I was exploring qualitative research approaches at the time (the subtitle is ‘Qualitative Inquiry and the Enhancement of Educational Practice’). Although I have a background in science (mathematics in particular), I found qualitative approaches and methods much more to my liking and cognisant with my experience as a teacher.

The book also helped me make sense and gain a new perspective on my own experience in distance education. For example, early in my career (1983, no less) we organised a staff development activity that included a visit and presentation by Paul Northcott, who was then at Deakin University working on the first external MBA. We had given Paul an example of our course materials and asked him to appraise it. At the time I was astounded by the breadth of his knowledge and the scope of his critical appraisal. He walked us through the study unit, examining aspects from a variety of perspectives (design, pedagogy, structure, etc.), at the same time introducing us to a range of scholars and thinkers that might influence our thinking (e.g. David Jonassen’s fabulous The Technology of Text – the link is to Vol. 2; Vol. 1 was even better, imho). It was masterly, and the session sped by all too quickly. Yes, Paul had an enlightened eye, and I hope that by the time I was writing my thesis that I too had developed at least some of the powers of the critical connoisseur for my research topic.

Getting back to Eisner, for decades he has been a staunch and steadfast believer and advocate for the contribution to education of the arts. In 2002, he delivered the John Dewey Lecture on what can education learn from the arts about the practice of education? Central to his argument was the belief, building on the ideas of Sir Herbert Read, that “the aim of education ought to be conceived of as the preparation of artists. By the term artist neither he nor I mean necessarily painters and dancers, poets and playwrights. We mean individuals who have developed the ideas, the sensibilities, the skills, and the imagination to create work that is well proportioned, skilfully executed, and imaginative, regardless of the domain in which an individual works. The highest accolade we can confer upon someone is to say that he or she is an artist whether as a carpenter or a surgeon, a cook or an engineer, a physicist or a teacher. The fine arts have no monopoly on the artistic.”

I’d read Eisner but never seen or heard him, so it was with pleasure that I recently discovered a talk that he gave at Stanford on ‘What do the arts teach?’ He was born in 1933, so he’s getting on a bit, and the pauses are long, but he speaks with conviction and a wry wit that is both engaging and wide-ranging. It’s about an hour’s worth, and you can avoid the introduction by skipping to the five minute mark. And I don’t know about you, but he loves editing, as it enables us to ‘savour the flavour of language’ (ref. about the 20 minute mark).

So, savour the joy of being an artist, a critical connoisseur, whose enlightened eye can tell the difference between an effective and an ineffective multiple-choice question, or who knows the difference between the yellow jersey and the green jersey (salute to Cadel Evans!).

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