Integrated curriculum and our paradigm of cognition in the arts

Integrated curriculum and our paradigm of cognition in the arts

Parsons, Michael J

I begin with the growing interest in integrating the arts with other subjects in the school curriculum. There are a number of phrases associated with this interest: integrated curriculum, interdisciplinary study, cross-disciplinary study, arts-centered curriculum, integrated learning (e.g., Jacobs, 1989; Bresler, 1995). These phrases represent a significant shift of emphasis in art education, away from the preoccupation with the integrity of disciplines and the differences between the arts and other subjects, toward making connections between them. I see this as an important change. It is not sudden or revolutionary, but I think it represents developments that run deep. Integrated learning is a topic of interest not only in art education but throughout the educational spectrum, and there are many other current signs and slogans of the same impulse, such as service learning, authentic assessment, whole-language instruction, school-university collaborations, and school-to-work programs.

Fundamentally, the change seems to be driven by a renewed desire to make school learning meaningful. In the attempt to teach rigor-accuracy of knowledge, carefulness of thought, the systematic relatedness of ideas-we have emphasized the unique structures of disciplines; their integrity and the differences between them. That, unfortunately, has promoted an isolation of school subjects which, combined with the growing information overload that our students face (Koroscik, 1996), has tended to dry up the sources of meaning in the curriculum.

One sign of the change in art education is the recent monograph Connections, significant in part because it was issued jointly by The College Board and the Getty Institute for Education in the Arts (Boston, 1997). It says, for example, that the idea of “the academic discipline, once itself an agent of educational reform, has ironically given birth to intellectual fragmentation that creates confusion for many of today’s high school students.” And it adds that

the tendency in American education has been…to create curriculum by accretion, by adding on with little concern about how subjects are related, thus producing curricula that are…lacking in any informing sense of the large questions, agreements, and disputes that drive learning in the world…Learning is often mechanical, routine, and viewed as preparatory for some later task that will somehow… make use of all the disconnected facts, figures and algorithms that students encounter in the course of schooling. (pp. 4-5)

John Dewey wrote about meaning and the school curriculum. He held that meaning comes from purposes: that we make sense of the elements of school subjects-what he tended to call ‘facts’-including bits of knowledge, new ideas, procedures, methods of inquiry-by relating them to purposes, personal or collective, real or imagined. The nature of the purposes determines the quality of the meanings. Our purposes in learning determine which facts we remember, how we organize them, and the future contexts in which we will use them. If the purposes are limited-as are some of the purposes fostered in school today, such as getting better grades, pleasing the teacher-so also will be the meanings.

On Dewey’s account, there is a reciprocal relationship between purposes and facts (what we would now call information). Purposes lead us to find, organize, remember and use information, and information helps us to reach or modify our purposes. Purposes lend meaning and information provides accuracy. They are mutually dependent and both necessary. So it is not a question of giving up our concern for subject matter in favor of students’ purposes, or of abandoning disciplines in favor of psychology. It is a question of paying attention to both and of promoting a fruitful relation between them.3

The reference to Dewey seems appropriate because the change, if indeed it is deep seated, represents a revival of the concerns of the progressive era, which was also a reaction to a period of over-emphasis on subject matter and the relative neglect of students. I believe we should draw the same general conclusion: that students’ interests, abilities, and cultural backgrounds are as important to curriculum planners as are the structures of knowledge.4 For the integration of knowledge, when it occurs, lies only proximately in the curriculum plans of teachers and ultimately in the understandings of students.

The Symbol System Account of Cognition in the Arts

Why should we think that the visual arts are suitable to promote integrated learning across the curriculum? After all, we have spent great energy insisting on the need to nurture the arts separately. As Stephen Dobbs says, in the introduction to the Connections monograph, “cross-disciplinary studies and the arts have quite different [educational] histories and may not always be seen as natural allies” (Boston, 1997, p. xiii). What must change if we are to see them as natural allies? I will focus on one aspect of the answer, the psychological. I believe that an interest in integrated learning calls us to pay more attention than we have to the psychology of learning in the arts. My argument will be that we need to look again at our dominant psychological paradigm of thinking in the arts. I believe it contains assumptions that we need to revise. This paradigm is sometimes called simply `the cognitive paradigm’ of the arts and it is frequently celebrated as such in reviews and symposia. It is widely regarded as both the main support for our view that the arts are cognitive and also as a fertile source of empirical research that has demonstrated the existence of multiple cognitive abilities of children. But I want to distinguish between the general claim that the arts are cognitive and particular accounts of what cognition in the arts is like. Our dominant paradigm is only one of these particular accounts, one that descends from information-processing views and that Davis and Gardner recently called the “symbol systems paradigm” (Davis & Gardner, 1992, p. 101). In suggesting that we should revise this paradigm, I do not imply that we should give up on the general view that the arts are cognitive, that is, a matter of active thinking, or that they are unique, that is, that they make meanings available that are not otherwise accessible. But I suggest we need a model of thinking that takes better account of the connections of art with the contexts of students’ purposes, both personal and collective, which is to say, with their lifeworld. The symbol systems approach, I believe, is based on assumptions that tend to frustrate these connections. It is therefore inconsistent with the move toward integrated learning. We can honor our past as much by adapting it to the present as by repeating it without change.

Briefly, my argument is this. The symbol systems approach to cognition identifies the different arts as each being a different symbol system, and thinking in the arts as processing, or conducting operations on, the symbols of one of these systems. This establishes the arts as cognitive. It also establishes them as unique because each art medium is a different symbol system, and therefore thinking within each symbol system is a unique kind of thinking. The problem, in my view, is that it goes on to restrict each kind of thinking to operations conducted on the terms of one symbol system only, to connections made only within the same art medium. The symbol systems approach requires thought to stay within the boundaries of the medium it is dealing with, on the assumption that, if it moves from one system to another, it loses coherence. This last step, I suggest, unnecessarily transforms a dimension of difference into a principle of separation.

The usual target of this principle of separation is linguistic thinking; thinking in a natural language. One reason for this is presumably that the original cognitive revolution in general was a reaction to the previous positivist dominance, in philosophy and in schooling, of language and logic. At the time, positivism conceived of natural languages as consisting primarily of statements that were either true and false, and associated them with “linear,” even with logical, thinking. This view seems to persist in places, long after positivism is dead. In any case, the principle of separation has two moves, a general and a particular one. The general one is the observation that thinking must use terms that are either visual, musical, linguistic, etc.; that is, it consists in the processing of the elements of different symbol systems. The particular move is the assertion that these are independent ways of thinking, to be kept apart and separately nurtured. I will call this latter the separate-but-equal view of kinds of thinking. It is this that fits poorly with integrated learning.

The Dominant Paradigm and its Origin

How did the view arise that thinking with visual and with linguistic materials should be kept separate, that vision alone yields a better understanding than does vision together with language, and that we should not mix different elements of thought together?

It is commonly acknowledged that we owe this paradigm of cognition in art to the overlapping influences of the theorists Ernst Gombrich, Rudolph Arnheim, and Nelson Goodman. They shared with the cognitive revolution in general the desire to disabuse us of the positivist assumptions about perception and about art: that perception is a kind of passive sensory experience and art a matter of the expression of feeling or of unconscious motivation. Together they brought a version of the cognitive revolution to the psychology of the arts, enabling us to understand that both perception and art are cognitive, that is, fundamentally a matter of thinking and understanding. They argued this case persuasively, and much to our benefit. But they had, of course, a particular version of the case and their persuasiveness has meant that this version-the symbol systems view-continues to dominate our psychology of thinking in the arts, 35 years later.

It was Arnheim who first and most persuasively made the case that thinking takes place only in a medium. One cannot, he argued, first think in a medium-free way and then afterwards express the thought in a medium, for thinking just is the shaping of the elements of the medium. This is the heart of Arnheim’s well-known argument that perception itself is cognitive: that to see is to perform operations on visual materials. He said, for instance:

The cognitive operations [note the echoes of information processing views in this phrase] called thinking are not the privilege of mental processes above and beyond perception but the essential ingredients of perception itself. I am referring to such operations as active exploration, selection, grasping of essentials, simplification, abstraction, analysis and synthesis, completion, correction, comparison, problem solving…These operations are not the prerogative of any one mental function; they are the manner in which minds of both man and animal treat cognitive material at any level. (Arnheim, 1969, p. 13)

Arnheim discussed each of these operations in detail, showing that they are components of both intelligence and of perception itself. Take, for example, the fundamental operation of selection. If one is to select some aspect of a visual situation for attention, and perhaps for further processing, then one must select a particular shape, color, patch, or line. The same is true of all such operations, which are thereby shown to be indisputably both cognitive and conducted from the very beginning in visual terms. For that reason, Arnheim called them simply `visual thinking.’ This was a powerful argument.

The same point, of course, can be made about thinking in other media. Kinesthetic thinking, for example, requires the selection for attention of particular bodily movements, and thinking verbally requires the selection of particular words and sentence structures. This is true of all the operations on Arnheim’s list. Thinking just is the performance of these kinds of operations on the elements of a particular medium, and there can be no medium-free version of them.

Arnheim drew a consequence from this that is equally familiar. It is that any translation of thought from one medium to another will be imperfect. If thinking is conducted in the terms of a particular medium, then to put it into the terms of a different medium is to change it, to some necessary but unknown degree. So visual thinking cannot be put exactly into words. All translations are distortions of the original thought. The conclusion seems to be that thought can remain true to itself only if it remains faithful to its medium, and this is the reason for insisting that we keep kinds of thinking separate.

The notion of ‘medium’ here is multiple. In Arnheim’s account of perception, the media correspond to our sensory channels. In the case of sight, the medium is visual and in the case of hearing, the medium is sound. These are the two sensory channels that Arnheim thinks most important for thinking. Language is different. There is no single sensory channel corresponding to it. Language can be spoken, in which case it is heard, or written, in which case it is seen (unless we read Braille, in which case it is touched). Language is not so much a medium of perception but of representation, a medium in the sense in which we often speak of painting, drawing, sculpting, as art media (and sometimes as disciplines).

Arnheim shared with Gombrich a related and equally influential account of thinking in the various art media-media of representation (Arnheim, 1954; Gombrich, 1960). Just as perception is not the passive reception of sensory impressions, they argued, so representing is not copying. Perception is the active search for visual structures and representation is the equally active search for equivalent structures in a medium of representation. This search requires active and constructive experimentation within the medium of representation. Representation is as thoroughly cognitive as is perception.

The thought of Nelson Goodman joins the stream of influence at this point, mostly complementing, and partly competing with, that of Arnheim and Gombrich. Goodman was concerned mostly with the media of representation and was impressed by their systematic character (Goodman, 1976). He considerably elaborated the idea of art media as symbol systems, which differ from natural languages in that they are nondiscursive and are capable of being ‘replete’ with significance. The use of these systems to create meanings is governed by rules, which are mostly intuitive and natural, but are also partly conventional. In this view, artistic thinking is the processing of the terms of a symbol system, creating significance and following the appropriate rules; and aesthetic thinking is the perception of that significance in the arrangement of those terms. Philosophers could investigate the rules of each system, and psychologists, the abilities of children to use them. This is the agenda that Project Zero set itself initially, when it was founded in 1967 (Gardner, Howard, & Perkins, 1974).

The confluence of these influences was fruitful. It freed psychologists from the notion that thinking must be verbal or mathematical and focused their attention on the thinking that underlies children’s perception and artmaking, especially on the intuitive rules governing specific art media. Claire Golomb, for example, says that Arnheim’s thought “calls for an understanding of the graphic logic that underlies children’s efforts and for an examination of the rules that determine their transformation over time.” This “requires special attention to the medium within which artistic expression occurs,” which is “a symbolic domain that has its own intrinsic rules and developmental coherence” (Golomb, 1993, p. 16). Golomb’s own work demonstrates the fertility of this approach (Golomb, 1989).

The general conclusion is that the child, as she scribbles, draws, paints or looks at artworks, is actively making meaning, experimenting with a unique, non-discursive, symbol system and learning to respond to its significant qualities and their expressiveness. The arts are established as being fully as cognitive as are other subjects and children as having many more cognitive capacities than the behaviorists thought.

Note, however, that this paradigm discourages teachers and researchers from asking children to talk about art, about what they see and how they interpret it. Talking is thought conducted in a different medium and it cannot reproduce the graphic logic of art. To talk about “graphic logic” is to translate it from one medium to another and to ensure distortion, if not irrelevance. In this view, if we cultivate or investigate children’s talk about art, we are dealing with a distinct set of abilities from those required to think in art, abilities that will likely have a different distribution and developmental pattern and should be dealt with separately. This distinction is foundational, because on it has been erected art’s claim to uniqueness as cognition.

A common formulation of this view is the distinction, now almost a slogan, between thinking in art and thinking about art. For example, Bennett Reimer, our foremost philosopher of music education, based a recent article on it, saying that thinking in art is the proper end or goal of aesthetic education, whereas thinking about art is a means only. By thinking in art he means, of course, thinking in musical terms; and by thinking about art, thinking in words. “This distinction,” Reimer says, “is crucial. It is a common error to think that people are aesthetically educated to the degree that they have a great deal of conceptual knowledge about art, so that education about art in the sense of verbal learnings about art replaces the education in art I am insisting must take place…” (Reimer, 1992, p. 42).

This distinction explains why the symbol systems paradigm has had only a partial fit with the movement to teach the disciplines of art. One would expect a cognitive approach in psychology to be a natural ally of discipline-based art education, but in fact it has not been so. It fits well with those who think of artmaking as the chief activity of art education, and of the various media of artmaking as the disciplines of art. For it allows them to say that to learn to draw, for example, is to learn to think visually and/or to use the symbol system of drawing. But it is less useful to those who count art history, criticism, aesthetics, as disciplines of art. These disciplines use words and cannot claim to be either a medium or a symbol system. Hence discipline-based art education and the symbol systems approach have lived in an uneasy alliance. The alliance, however, was more important than the unease because they shared the overarching desire to secure the view that art is cognitive and that its cognitions are unique. And because discipline-based art education was focused almost wholly on the disciplinary character of knowledge, it did not feel the need to work out an alternative psychology.

A notable descendant of these views is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983). For Gardner, an intelligence is a way of thinking determined by some combination of Arnheim’s perceptual channels and Goodman’s symbolic domains, overlain with the stipulation that they are useful in socially developed practices. This notion is the most popular current version of the separate-but-equal view of thinking, providing a useful rationale for the inclusion of the arts in school, for what Gardner has called an “intelligence-fair” curriculum. It has the same considerable persuasive power for those who want to liberate schooling from the grip of the linear and the logical, that is, from the still-present remnants of positivism, Arnheim’s original target.

The Role of Language and Culture in Cognition

I have just outlined what I take to be the dominant account of thinking in art among contemporary art educators and psychologists. My purpose is not to deny its historical importance. It has been enormously beneficial to our field. But I want to ask the question how well it fits with the emerging desire to promote integrated learning in or through the arts?

The views I have mentioned-of Gombrich, Arnheim, Goodman, Gardner-are dominated by an emphasis on differences-between modes of perception, ways of thinking, kinds of intelligence. Their chief concern is to establish the distinctiveness of these kinds of thinking and to ensure for each its own respect and separate nurture. And this, as I have suggested, entails a limitation on the range of meanings artworks are thought to carry.

To think is to make connections. The connections of interest to the symbol systems approach are the internal connections between the elements of self-sufficient media or symbol systems. It legitimizes only thought that stays within the terms of a symbol system.5 Integrated learning, however, calls also for maximizing connections across as well as within symbol systems, however impure we fear the result may be. And especially it calls for making connections between the elements of visual and linguistic systems. The reason is that much of the meaning of artworks lies in their relations with our lifeworld, our personal and collective purposes, the culture we live in. And culture is accessible mostly through language. The immense network of meanings that we call culture is inescapably mediated through language and behavior. Of course this does not deny the importance of other media, since on this view media are not exclusive of each other; it is to say only that categories embodied in language and behavior are always part of the constitution of meaning.

There is evidence that the visual thinking of children begins as part of what has been called a “pluri-media” activity (Kindler, 1994; Kindler & Darras, 1994). When young children begin to draw-attempt to represent meaning visually-they do not make marks on paper that are intended for visual contemplation alone. They engage in activity that includes gesture, imitative noise and language, and their visual products are meaningful only in the context of the total activity. The origins of drawing are not confined to one medium. I think this is a significant fact that is relevant to the general philosophical point. In the second half of the 20th century almost all philosophers accept the view that our experience and life-world is linguistically mediated. This is fundamental for those influenced by the continental hermeneutic tradition, by “the linguistic turn” in English-speaking philosophy, or by postmodernism. So at the very least I want to say that we have limited access to culture without language, and without language artworks have very limited connections with culture. My argument is that to distinguish sharply between thinking visually and thinking linguistically is also to keep apart art and culture.

It is clear that Rudolph Arnheim accepted this claim. In fact, he argued that it is because culture is irrelevant to the deepest significance of art that the different kinds of thinking should be carefully kept apart. Otherwise, we might fail to grasp that significance. It is necessary that the meaning of a visual work be grasped solely in visual terms if it is to be universal and culture-free. He allowed that there can also be, in at least some cases, a linguistically-based interpretation based on culture, but this, he argued, being formulated in a different medium, rides on separate tracks and is relatively superficial. It is thinking that deals solely with the visual medium that grasps its “deepest and central” meaning. For example, he wrote:

The nature of visual thinking in art becomes particularly evident when it is compared with elements of ‘intellectual’ knowledge, which…are imported into the visual statement from the outside. Jan Vermeer’s Woman Weighing Gold is identified in the guide book as an allegory: `The young woman weighs her worldly goods standing before a painting of the Last Judgment wherein Christ weighs the souls of men.’ The parallel between the two actions is indispensable for the understanding of the picture. However, this is an intellectual connection, not displayed compositionally. If one knows of the Last Judgment, one can compare the subject matter of the background story with that of the foreground….The intellectual theme, however, is also expressed visually. The most conspicuous feature of the background picture is the dark, rigidly vertical ledge of the frame, which descends in the very center of Vermeer’s composition. This powerful shape takes hold of the woman’s hand and suspends the hand’s movement. By this device the worldly scene of the foreground is arrested, while a light from above, stronger than the mundane glitter of the jewelry, causes the woman’s eyes to close. Here again, the basic compositional pattern spells out the deepest and central thought of the work in great directness. The iconographic data add only a religious specification to the broad human theme. (Arnheim, 1969, p. 270)

This is a clear statement of the separate-but-equal view. But it has ceased to be persuasive. The example does establish that there are two media for thought here, but not that they are or should be held apart, nor that one is deep and the other superficial. To me it suggests the opposite: that there are two kinds of materials and they can and should be constantly connected, that, though we can distinguish visual and linguistic elements of the work, our thought can move easily back and forth between them. True, we cannot translate one kind of material accurately into the other. We cannot say exactly what we see; nor see all that is suggested by the linguistic associations. But that means that each mode has something to contribute to our understanding, that each adds what is otherwise unavailable. This seems to be a reason for encouraging the mixture, not for prohibiting it. Thought, in moving back and forth from one mode to another, can make distinctions and connections that are otherwise impossible, and is the richer for it. There are two tracks to travel on, perhaps, but there is only one destination, which is a grasp of the meaning of the work.

I realize that some see danger in the assertion that cultural context plays a role in constituting the meanings of artworks. There is a fear that this is a slippery slope toward the “situation…in which the work of art is dissolved into its context” (DiBlasio, 1997, p. 101). But this fear goes well beyond what I am suggesting. I do not deny that the meanings of an artwork are embodied in a visual form, are accessible only through seeing the artwork, are non-discursive and sui generis. I suggest only that these conditions do not rule out a role for language (and culture), a role that gives both language and visual perception a part in the construction of meanings of artworks. On this account, artworks are constituted as meaningful objects by both visual and linguistic materials of thought in interaction. Both kinds of material are necessary, both are part of what creates the artwork, and consequently neither is subordinate, nor merely a means, to the other. This is just another way of taking seriously the assertion that an artwork must be interpreted, that before we have interpreted it it exists only as a material object and not as an artwork. Arthur Danto is the best known English-speaking philosopher to insist on this. He says, for example: “Interpretations [are] functions which transform material objects into works of art…Only in relation to an interpretation is an object an artwork” ( Danto, 1981, p. 39).

Mel Chin’s Spirit: An Example

I want to add another example that is in many ways parallel to Arnheim’s but where the implausibility of keeping the linguistic material separate from the visual is greater. The example comes from the permanent collection in the Museum of Art of Columbus, Ohio. It is called Spirit and it is by Mel Chin.

I will first describe this work as if I were Arnheim, insisting on the integrity-that is, the culture-free character-of visual thought. My question is: what can be understood of this work from its purely visual qualities? In practice, it is hard to maintain a sense of what is purely visual, but I will try. Spirit consists of an enormous oak barrel, balanced on a rope that runs the length of a narrow, rectangular room. The barrel is stout and well-crafted. The rope is thick and rough. The barrel occupies much of the space in the center of the room. One cannot easily walk around it. As one does so, it seems oppressive. It is perfectly balanced on the rope but one wonders if it is secure and whether the rope might break. There is a sense of great weight and of threat. This sense is as much kinesthetic as it is visual but for me, as I walk around this barrel, the two are impossible to distinguish.

I think that is about as far as Arnheim could consistently go. It is significant that, if we stay with the strictly visual elements, we are not sure whether the room itself, with its plain white walls and dark ceiling, is part of the work. Usually the room is part of the museum, not the work, and we ignore it. In this case, without further interpretation, it is not clear where our visual inspection should stop, which visual elements should be included.

Notice that Goodman’s approach may be less useful in making sense of Spirit than Arnheim’s. This is because Goodman’s analysis focuses on what is systematic about the system and in this case there is little system of the sort he had in mind. One might think of the materials used hererope, an oak barrel-as part of the symbol, Spirit, but hardly as a symbol system, since they are brought together in this way for this work only.

Spirit is not a complex visual object, but it is a complex artwork. To realize its complexity, we must interpret it, that is, construct it within a context; and for that we must consult material available only in language. The context of Spirit is one of North American history and present ecological concern. It is about the continuing effects of the movement westwards across the plains of North America of 19th-century settlers. The barrel, as the catalog says, “recalls the casks common to American frontier life. Everyday necessities essential to the survival of the early settlers, such as grain, pork, oil, alcoholic spirits and gunpowder, were transported and stored in these casks” (Beardsley, 1994, p. 192). Chin believes that the 19th century westward movement, and the trade that followed it, which has resulted in our freeways, cities, suburbs, airports, parking lots, has put a burden on the ecosystem of the great plains that it can barely support.

This interpretation is confirmed when we discover, from the curatorial account, that the rope is made of native grasses that are now threatened with extinction: for example, Big Bluestem. These grasses were gathered by Chin and assistants from a national preserve in Topeka, Kansas. And we have to say that our knowledge of these grasses, and of their threatened existence, and of the westward movement and of all its present consequences, and our concern for the ecological balance of the prairies: all of these ideas are part of Spirit. They are not information about Spirit, or a means of understanding it, but an essential and constitutive part of it, the cultural material interacting with the visual elements to form one artwork. Thought must move freely between all these to see Spirit as an artwork.


I have distinguished two major theses of our dominant paradigm of thinking in the psychology of the arts. One is quite general: that the arts are cognitive and that the meanings of artworks are unique to them. The other is more specific: a particular account of cognition in the arts, known as the symbol systems account. This account restricts thinking in the arts to processing only the connections within a medium and cuts art off from culture. It is this feature that does not promise well for integrating the arts into the curriculum.

There are other accounts of thinking in the arts. In particular, there is an interpretive account, which does not give up on the general tenets that the arts are cognitive and that their meanings are accessible only through artworks. But it does abandon the prestige of the purely visual and the lure of clear and fixed meanings within symbol systems. It sees natural languages not as linear and logical but as imprecise, multi-layered, volatile, always in process of translation, never precisely fixed in meaning, and as always a constituent of art. It accepts this inevitable messiness as a necessary part of communication, whether across culture, time, media, or persons. The reward is greatly increased possibilities of meaning. Accepting such a view would allow our psychology to connect, at a constructive level, artworks with culture and thereby art with the rest of the school curriculum. Only so, I believe, can we promote the integration of learning through the arts.

Copyright National Art Education Association Winter 1998

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