Teaching as bringing to life

During the time of the semester when grades are due, it’s difficult to ignore the aspects of the teaching job that involve judging, ranking, sorting, and critiquing in the sense of finding and documenting fault. But these aspects have little to do with teaching, and usually stand in the way. When one is learning, it can be helpful to know where one has gone wrong, but more often the wrong is painfully obvious and what we need even more is to know what of our fragile attempts can be brought to life. For that, we need critique in another sense, one that’s a friend to the new, brings ideas to life, and makes quality vivid.

Anton Ego, Michel Foucault, and Elliot Eisner speak to this issue:

We critics risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism for it’s fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. –the critic, Anton Ego, Disney/Pixar movie Ratatouille

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.–Michel Foucault

If connoisseurship is the art of appreciation, criticism is the art of disclosure. Criticism, as Dewey pointed out in Art as Experience, has at is end the re-education of perception… The task of the critic is to help us to see. Thus…connoisseurship provides criticism with its subject matter. Connoisseurship is private, but criticism is public. Connoisseurs simply need to appreciate what they encounter. Critics, however, must render these qualities vivid by the artful use of critical disclosure. –Elliot Eisner, 1985, pp. 92-93


Eisner, Elliot W. (1985). The art of educational evaluation: a personal view. London: Falmer.

Foucault, Michel (1980, April). The masked philosopher. Le Monde, interview by Christian Delacampagne.

Smith, Mark K. (2005). Elliot W. Eisner, connoisseurship, criticism and the art of education. The encyclopaedia of informal education.

Stake, Robert E., & Schwandt, Thomas (2006). On discerning quality in evaluation. In Ian Shaw, Jennifer C. Greene, & Melvin M. Mark (eds.), Handbook of evaluation: Policies, programs and practices. Sage.

2 thoughts on “Teaching as bringing to life

  1. Good question! I’ve often discovered that my first impression was wrong.

    What seems most productive is to take each idea on its own terms and ask what can be done with it, where it might lead. That means that the brave, new and wonderful, creative idea is pushed to see what else it might yield. But the same is done with the apparently lesser idea.

    Judgment then is not a one-time thing, but something that occurs during the process of continuing inquiry. Much of what makes an idea wonderful is the way it comes alive and generates more ideas.

    Of course, that view undermines the entire schema for school-based evaluation.

    btw, I recommend the thoughtful essays on your blog.


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