The arts as "the basics" of education.


Kieran Egan



In its newsletter to parents, a local Canadian school has been boasting that it offers its students "job-ready skills." It has been tailoring its curriculum to "produce" precisely what various local employers seem to want. This responsiveness to the "marketplace", to "the consumers of the schools' products" is considered entirely admirable by many local politicians, who are, after all, the schools' paymasters. This pressure on schools is felt not only at the senior secondary level, but is evident throughout the system. It is also evident in young children. When Cedric Cullingford asked a wide sample of primary school children what they were at school for, he was surprised to hear from all the children that they understood the first purpose of school was to prepare them for "jobs" (Cullingford, 1985, 1986.)

At present it is easy to justify curriculum time being spent on activities that seem to lead directly to skills that will be of practical use in adulthood. So the "basics" of education are usually thought to be the early development of what will later be skills useful in employment. It is now proving easy for those who promote "computer literacy", for example, to argue for curriculum time on the grounds that computer skills will be of practical value for jobs in the future. It is becoming another "basic." How can the arts defend themselves from being increasingly marginalised by the insistence that schools give more and more curriculum time to those "basic" skills that will be of practical value in future society?

I want to suggest that the problem we find ourselves in--sidelining the arts increasingly even though we recognize their centrality to education--is in part tied up in our having accepted a set of basic educational ideas that are mistaken. That is, I want to make the uncomfortable case that the root of the problem is a set of ideas that most readers of this article probably take for granted.

These ideas have a long history and were put into their modern familiar form by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). They were then adapted by American psychologists, philosophers, and educators such as William James, John Dewey, G. Stanley Hall, and Edward Thorndike. The ideas also influenced Jean Piaget. These influential thinkers and researchers have reinforced Spencer's ideas and helped to make them taken-for-granted truisms about children's thinking and learning.

These ideas are, in Spencer's words, that in educating children "we should proceed from the simple to the complex...from the indefinite to the definite...from the particular to the general...from the concrete to the abstract...from the empirical to the rational" (1969, p.75). "Every study, therefore," he argued "should have a purely empirical introduction . . . children should be led to make their own investigations, and draw their own inferences. They should be told as little as possible, and induced to discover as much as possible" (1969, p. 75).

The problem with these ideas is that they assume that children's intellectual development follows a path like our biological development. Spencer adapted these ideas from evolutionary biology (an evolutionary biology since shown to be itself mistaken, see Gould, 1996) and applied them directly to education, Jean Piaget's influential theory is similarly built on a biological conception of development. It is an "hierarchical integrative" theory, in which the child is represented as accumulating skills in stages, each set of which is incorporated and enlarged by the further skills acquired in the subsequent stage. The adult is thus seen as an elaboration of all the capacities that are simply emryonic in childhood.

The result of Spencer's ideas, and the support Piaget has lent to them, is a view of the basics of education as the setting in place the skills that gradually grow to maturity and practical use in adult society. What is wrong with this?


We begin as poets

What is wrong is that the human mind does not develop like the rest of the biological world in one educationally very important way. Human children are equipped with some specific intellectual capacities that reach their peak in our early years and remain only in some residual form through the rest of our lives. For example, our ability to recognize and generate appropriate metaphors reaches its peak by age five, and declines thereafter (Gardner and Winner, 1979; Winner, 1988). Metaphoric fluency is crucial in language development, but also, of course, for a range of other intellectual activities. Those intellectual capacities we rather vaguely refer to as "the imagination" similarly experience energetic deployment early in life and, typically, gradual decline as we grow older. We tend to develop arteriosclerosis of the imagination in adulthood.

Consider for a moment the kind of food you most hated when you were five years old. And try to recapture if you can the degree of loathing you felt for it. In my case it was cheese. I couldn't bear to let cheese near my mouth. Now I eat cheese quite appreciatively, and for some time thought this was a triumph of character--when, alas, it's largely the result of a decay of taste buds. Unfortunately, it isn't only the taste buds that go into decline after about age five or six; a whole range of intellectual capacities that are necessary to quickly orient us to a language, a society, and a cosmos are evolutionarily developed to become less useful after about age five and to go into decline. Unfortunately, again, these tools of the imagination are precisely those needed to keep us intellectually flexible, creative, and energetic in modern societies. That is, our evolution is at odds with our educational needs--which helps to explain why the educational job is so hard.

The profile of the development of imagination in our lives seems quite unlike that ever-rising progress from childhood to adulthood that is represented in hierarchical-integrative, biology-derived developmental theories. While we lack any precise image of the development of imagination, even the most casual observation of human beings at various ages suggests that it would be absurd to claim that imagination is only embryonically present in young children and becomes increasingly more evident, elaborate, and rich as we grow older. Give a box to a typical adult and to a typical child and ask them to work out different uses for it; when the adult gives up after a few minutes with six uses, the child is into the fiftieth and just warming up.

If we look at children's imaginative lives, rather than their slowly-accumulating logico-mathematical skills, we do not see intellectual activity dominated by the concrete, the simple, the indefinite, the empirical, and so on. We see prodigal metaphoric invention, talking middle-class rabbits, titanic conflicts of good and evil, courage and cowardice, fear and security, and so on.

It seems not unfair to say that current developmental theories that have been influential in education have emphasized what young children do least well--those logico-mathematical capacities that slowly develop through our early lives--and have largely ignored those things that young children do best intellectually, and better typically than adults--those imaginative skills attached to metaphor and image generation, and to narrative and affective understanding.

If we conclude that Spencer's principles are inadequate in giving us a picture of the child as a learner, and hence are wrongly identifying what are the most secure basics for education, to what alternative can we turn for a more adequate conception of children's development and so the basics of education?


The arts

If language is the crucial fact of early human development--the true basic of all our education--and early childhood is the period during which children are developing oral language at a prodigal rate, let us consider what intellectual capacities--what tools of understanding--are involved in generating and using an oral language. To put it generally, what, intellectually, comes to children along with language?

"Language, in a preliterate society lacking the apparatus of a modern information-state, is basically for telling stories" (Donald, 1991, p. 257). Our inventory of what comes along with language, then, might begin with stories.

What are stories? Stories are unique kinds of narratives in that they have, in their basic forms, ends that satisfy some tension generated by their beginnings. If I tell you that "She was pushed into the water"--you will want to know by whom, and why, and, most basically for a story, whether to feel glad or sorry that she was pushed into the water. If I tell you that she was pushed by a big bearded man who snatched her purse and that she hated the water and could hardly swim, you will begin to feel sorry that she was pushed. But if I tell you that someone had planted a bomb in her bag and it was about to go off, and the bearded man was trying to save her life at the risk of his own...well, you will begin to feel differently about the event "She was pushed into the water". The story is the only form of language that can fix the hearer's affective orientation to the events, characters, ideas, or whatever, that make it up. Stories, basically, are little tools for orienting our emotions.

Language also brings with it a series of techniques to aid the memory to build up a store of knowledge. So rhyme and rhythm can help the process of remembering information in a way that is useful and also enjoyable--"Thirty days hath November...". Early language development properly leads to a mind that re-sounds with a store of rhymes and rhythms.

Language can be used to stimulate vivid images in the mind, and knowledge coded into such images is more easily remembered reliably. We remember things best when we can locate them emotionally and associate them with some vivid image. Generating images from words seems invariably to involve some emotional component (Warnock, 1976)--which helps to account for the greater richness we typically experience from generating our own images from text or listening to an oral story than from seeing images presented to us on film or television. Hearing a story is usually an imaginatively active experience, whereas seeing it is usually much less so.

If we consider the kinds of fantasy stories young children are most powerfully engaged by--and it is a rare adult who does not recall in detail, say, Cinderella, while the same adult may remember nothing of the more "relevant", "issues-oriented" stories read to them as children--we may see that their underlying structure is usually a simple binary conflict based on security/fear, courage/cowardice, good/evil, and so on. Three simple observations might be made about these binary structures; first, they are abstract, second, they are affective, and, third, they can "expand" understanding to anything in the universe that can be organized in terms of their basic affective concepts.

Their abstractness perhaps merits emphasis in the face of the near-ubiquitous assertion in education that young children are "concrete thinkers". That young children do not commonly use abstract terms explicitly does not mean that they do not constantly use abstractions in their thinking. Indeed, one might reasonably make a case for "the primacy of the abstract" (Hayak,1970) and for children's ability to make sense of the concrete only to the degree that the concrete elements are tied to some affective abstraction (Egan, 1989). If you tell a young child the story of Robin Hood, you presuppose the child understands the relationships between oppression, resentment, and revolt. They may not know those terms, or be able to define them, but they are meaningful within the story, and, indeed, the story would be largely meaningless to the child without an understanding of those abstract emotional relationships--even though the child may have learned those particular emotions and their relationships within their homes or in play with their peers.

The point about the binary oppositions and mediation is that once you grasp from experience such oppositions as solitude/company, for example, you can make sense of a solitary like Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. That is, you don't need to "expand" the child's horizons gradually from something familiar till you can make star warriors, monks, or witches meaningful; they can be grasped directly in terms of such abstract binary terms. So the fundamental principle of much early school curricula, and especially the Social Studies curriculum, is based on an assumption about children's "expansion" of understanding, that is simply inadequate.

These, then, are just a few of the intellectual tools that come to the young child along with language. With metaphor, story, binary-opposition and mediation, affective abstraction, image-generation from words, rhyme and rhythm, we are beginning to construct our inventory of "basics" in education. They look very like the basic set of tools we have traditionally associated with the imagination and with the arts in general. They are the tools of the poet within each of us--however energetically, or otherwise, they are used.

By focusing on the intellectual tools that young children use most and best rather than drawing parallels from biological development, the ideas we might form of children's thinking and learning are somewhat different from Spencer's set. We might state them as:

1. That children are abstract as well as concrete thinkers;

2. That children's thinking is powerfully affective;

3. That children readily understand content organized into story forms;

4. That children are readily engaged by forming images from words;

5. That children are prodigal producers and consumers of metaphors;

6. That children's learning is stimulated by rhyme and rhythm;

7. That children's learning can proceed by forming binary oppositions and mediating them.

There seem to be significant implications for the curriculum and for teaching that follow from these alternative principles see Egan, 1997). I will here explore just one set of implications for teaching.


Implications for teaching

The first implication, to quote the title of a book I seem to remember seeing somewhere, is that one might begin to think of "teaching as story telling" (Egan, 1989) This is not to suggest that we should spend our time telling children lots of fictional stories, though more emphasis on such stories may be one result of this alternative approach, but rather that we think of the content of the curriculum more as great stories to tell than as objectives to attain. We might, then, think of "story" much in the sense a newspaper editor asks a reporter "What's the story on this?" That is, we will not look for a fiction related to the content but rather seek out the affective meaning--the emotional resonance--within the content.

For example, instead of using a planning model derived from Ralph Tyler's (1949) useful, but industry-influenced (Callaghan, 1962) objectives-content-methods-evaluation scheme, we might construct an alternative model derived from some of the principles sketched above. I have called it "mythic" because so many of the poetic features of childrens' thinking on which it is based are shared by the central features of mythic thinking:

Mythic planning framework

1. Identifying importance

What is emotionally important about this topic? What is affectively engaging about it?

2. Finding binary opposites

What binary concepts best capture the affective importance of the topic?

3. Organizing the content into a story form

3.1 First teaching event

What content most dramatically embodies the binary concepts, in order to provide access to the topic? What image best captures that content and its dramatic contrast?

3.2 Structuring the body of the lesson or unit

What content best articulates the topic into a clear story form? What vivid metaphors does it suggest?

4. Conclusion

What is the best way of resolving the conflict inherent in the binary concepts? What degree of mediation is it appropriate to seek? How far is it appropriate to make the binary concepts explicit?

5. Evaluation

How can one know whether the topic has been understood, its importance grasped, and the content learned?

Let me give a quick example of how this model might be used. I will take the example from a book written by three Australian teachers who have been using the model for a few years (Armstrong, Connolly, & Saville, 1994). Among the units of study they outline in the book is one on the environment.

They identified the importance--the emotional importance to them and to the children--in the sense that what the individual does can make a difference to the environment, and that the environment they influence is the one they will grow old in and the one they will pass on to their children.

The binary opposites they identified, based on their exploration of their feelings about the environment, were despair and hope.

They began organizing the content into a story structure by choosing something that provided a dramatic exemplification of those binary opposites. They used the book and video The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. It tells the story of Elzéar Bouffier, who, over a lifetime, filled a whole region with hope by his solitary efforts to reafforest a desolate area of the French Alps. From this beginning they built activities and knowledge that conveyed an understanding of the environment by constantly contrasting hope with despair.

These activities involved the students in regenerating some waste land, and the conclusion was in seeing the positive results of their work, feeling the hope that working along with nature gave them, and recognizinf that over the years what they had done would have significant beneficial consequesnces. Their purpose was less mediation than the confirming of hope. The unit of study also involved personal development activities, religious study, science and mathematics, language arts, etc. all integrated into the single extended story about human hopes and despairs concerning the environment.

Evaluation was based on the students' sense of the story of regeneration they played a part in, the clarity and accuracy of their predictions for the results of their work, discussion of their emotions and thoughts about their work, their enthusiasm, committment, and involvement, their ability to extract relevant information that would have practical beneficial effects and to be able to present this in confident and competent oral and written forms, and an ability to cooperate in a group to achieve agreed on goals.


Spencer's principles derive from thinking of children's minds largely in terms of logico-mathematical capacities, and forgetting that before they develop these to any significant degree, and also after they have done so, children also have more richly the capacities of poetic thinking. The central fact of our minds from an educational point of view is not their biological nature, and all that has been assumed to follow for our slow development of logical skills, but their poetic nature. We begin as poets, using the techniques that language allows us to make sense of our world. The basics of our educational development, then, are the arts. It is through deployment of those tools and skills that are central to early language development--story, metaphor, rhyme and rhythm, binary structuring and mediation, image formation from words, affective abstraction, and so on--that we lay down the true basics of education.



Armstrong, Miranda, Ann Connolly, Kathy Saville. (1994). Journeys of discovery. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Callaghan, R. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cullingford, Cedric. (1985). Parents, teachers and schools. London: Robert Royce.

Cullingford, Cedric. (1986). "'Isuppose learning your tables could help you get a job'--Children's views about the purpose of schools." Education 3-13, 14 (2), 41-46.

Donald, Merlin. (1991). Origins of the modern mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Egan, Kieran. (1989). Teaching as story telling. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Egan, Kieran. (1988). Primary understanding. New York: Routledge.

Egan, Kieran. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. (1996) Full house: The spread of excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony.

Hayek, F.A. (1970). The primacy of the abstract. In Arthur Koestler & J.R. Smythies (Eds.), Beyond reductionism. New York: Macmillan.

Spencer, Herbert. (1969). Herbert Spencer. Ann Low-Beer (Ed.) London: Collier-Macmillan.

Warnock, M. (1976). Imagination. London: Faber.


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