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The arts, science, and the study of exceptionality.

The Arts, Science, and the Study of Exceptionality the poet . . . re-attaches things to nature and the Whole--reattaching even artificial things and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight. . . . Emerson (in Gilman, 1985)

In his article "On Distorting Reality to Comprehend Distortion," Blatt (1984) argued the need to reestablish the link between science on the one hand and the arts and the humanities on the other. He stated that exceptionality and the conditions of its study are so intricate, so complex, and so value laden that research, measurement, and theory building alone can not own it. In addressing the field of mental retardation, these must have been among his last written words:

Everyone will seek sometime a more comprehensible reality than what's available. . . . We in the field of mental retardation have not given our poets and artists very much of a chance to inform us about this world. Nor have we invited them to help us see ourselves, and each other. Nor do we seem driven to have them worry with us about our imperfections. . . . Poets have something to teach us--have something to teach the scientist. (p. 620)

The separation between the arts and the humanities and the sciences (with their assumed incompatable, and most will say, opposing characteristics and purposes) has been taken for granted as an epistemologically correct separation ever since the study of human behavior squarely placed itself under the ontological and epistemotogical dictates of the sciences. It produced the situation of the "two cultures" described by Snow in 1959. As physicist LeShan and psychologist Margenau (1982, p. 169) noted, the arts have been of astoundingly little interest to the scientist qua scientist.


LeShan and Margenau's critique is only one of many that have traced the history and development of the present paradigmatic turbulence virtually all disciplines are experiencing, a turbulence that poses a profound challenge to our long-held concepts of what constitutes reality, knowledge, and method. What is the place of the arts and the humanities in the quest for knowledge? Slowly, scientists have been acknowledging the essential function the arts and the humanities hold in our understanding of reality--and in the scientific enterprise itself. For instance, Prigogine and Stengers' (1984) entire book dealt with the coming together of the world of tradional science with the inner path to knowledge. (Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in 1977 for his work on the thermodynamics of nonequilibrium systems.) Prigogine and Stengers saw artistic activitiy as an especially important expression of knowing. Whereas the symbol of classical science was the clock, and the symbol for the Industrial Revolution was the engine running down, Prigogine and Stengers (1984, p. 23) have suggested that the symbol for 20th Century science be art forms that bridge the confrontation between formal/theoretical and intuitive/tacit understandings of the world.


Roger Sperry (in Cousins, 1985) located the connections between the inner and outer worlds directly within the brain. The key development of his work was:

a new causal interpretation that ascribes to inner experience an intergral causal control role in brain function and behavior. . . . The whole world of inner experience (the world of the humanities) long rejected by twentieth century scientific materialism, thus becomes recognized and included with the domain of science. (pp. 45-46)

Instead of the irreconcilable chasm between the scientific and the humanistic view, as Sperry stated (in Cousins, 1985, p. 42), a new unifying interpretive framework is emerging with far-reaching consequences as scientists move from objective behaviorism to a more subjective cognitivism.

The call for the arts and the humanities coincides with the current dispute concerning the validity of traditonal assumptions of the dominant scientific worldview. Critiques have pointed to the untenability of the separation between fact and value, observer and observed, and objectively and subjectivity. These assumptions are now seen as standing in the way of a fuller understanding of reality. Instead, critics have acknowledged the crucial link between the observer and observed, which renders the traditional assumptions no longer epistemological possibilities (see e.g., Bernstein, 1983; Capra, 1982; Kuhn, 1970; Morgan, 1983; Polkinghorne, 1983, in press; and in the areas of psychology, education and special education, Doll, 1986; Gergen, 1985; Heshusius, 1982, 1986a; Iano, 1986; Poplin, 1984c, 1985; Sawada & Caley, 1985; Smith 1983; Smith & Heshusius, 1986; Valle, 1981). Outer and inner understandings of the world turn out to be inseparable and highly interdependent also in the natural sciences (Capra, 1982; Cousins, 1985; LeShan & Margenau, 1982). These insights make it no longer justifiable to maintain the strict separation between the humanities and the arts on the one hand and the sciences on the other nor to ascribe a "higher" level of "truth" or "reality" to one than to the other.


The social sciences have been called a science largely because of the use of method. In coming out of philosophy and the humanities as a way to study human behavior, social scientists thought that scientific methodology had to be given priority and could be conveniently and effectively borrowed from the natural sciences. Recently, however, the crucial interdependency of observer and observed, of fact and value, of objectivity and subjectivity is being understood. We are indeed moving "Beyond Method" (Morgan, 1983) and "Beyond Objectivity and Subjectivity" (Bernstein, 1983), and the independent and nearly sacred status of Method can no longer be maintained. Bernstein showed how such major contemporary thinkers as Habermas, Rorty, and Gadamer are moving beyond a reductionistic rationality of method and technique toward an understanding of rationality as human rationality. This rationality, instead of being grounded in method and technique, is grounded in discourse, dialogue, and morality--for both our theoretical and research endeavors and for the conduct of our practical lives.

Bernstein (1983, p. 118) discussed Gadamer's major concerns about the arts: How are we to deal with the modern embarrassment in speaking about truth in regard to works of art? What is the source for the deep prejudice that the apreciation of art has nothing to do with knowledge and truth? These questions, as Bernstein noted, have of course been peripheral to the dominant reductionistic approaches to science.


Among those scholars who have speciafically invited the humanities and their storytelling tradition into the realm of social science are Eisner (1985), Frye (1981), Randall (1984), Scully (1980), and Winkler (1984, 1985). Kenneth Prewitt (in Scully, 1980, p. 1), president of the Social Science Research Council, stated that a major goal for social science should be to "grope toward the humanities" because of widespead uneasiness over the inability of social science to explain many of the more important issues it studies. Northrop Frye (1981), in his address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, stressed that the issue is not be distinguish between objectivity and subjectivity, which is a false distinction. It is not the case, he stated, that one is "real" and the other "not real." Contemporary thought has led to a converagence of the energies of the arts and the sciences, to a meeting point where "metaphors and equations balance out, where scientists and humanists shake off the past and join together in the present" (Frye, 1981, p. 64).


Many writers have expressed with increasing force, a disenchantment with the underlying assumptions and the methods of traditional social science approaches (e.g., Andreski, 1972; Koch, 1981; Gould, 1981; Sarason, 1981). To paraghrase Sarason (pp. ix, 14), the social sciences are in disarray. In talking privately with social scientists, he found that they were disenchanted with the "superficial pictures" their disciplines create:

They will admit that something is (and went) wrong, that the promise of social science has not paid off; that the world of affairs does not conform to social science models and paradigms; . . . that perhaps the natural science conception of solutions is not applicable to social probles. . . . (Sarason, 1981, p. 14)

After citing what he called an even longer "litany of horrors," Sarason concluded that we need to start "painting a new picture." This sense that we need new knowledge, a new ontology and epistemology, is gathering momentum. The common theme running through the arguments is that the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the dominant scientific model are too reductionistic, are trying to claim too much, and should no longer have the exclusive privilege to claims of "truth."


Within special education, various authors have discussed the impact of dominant scientific thought on the discipline. In particular, they have been concerned about the belief in linear, closed system causality and the belief in the component model (the breaking down of wholes into parts, logically and sequentially arranged). These beliefs have led to an emphasis in special education on quantification and ranking as privileged ways to knowledge, and on the ability to predict and control behavior through the use of the scientific method. Addressing concrete manifestations of these beliefs, Iano (1986), Heshusius (1982, 1986b), and Poplin (1985, in press) discussed the relentless search for relations between isolated variables and for direct causes of and cures for learning problems. In Heshusius (1982, 1984, 1986b), Reid and Hresko (1981), Iano (1986), Ohanian (1981), Mitchell (1980), and Poplin (1984a, 1984c, 1985, in press) one finds critiques of reductionistic thought as it is mirrored in behavioral objectives that reduce complex human processes to only the most obvious and observable behaviors. Reductionist thought is further mirrored in programmed and sequentialized materials, in isolated skill training, and in a "push-button mentality" (Mitchell, 1980) that reduces the teacher to an instructional technician and the learner to an organism controlled by stimulus-response and input-output models. Blatt (1977), Iano (1986), and Poplin (1984b, in press) discussed how artificiality and triviality easily arise under reductionistic thought in the conduct of research. The solidification of reductionistic beliefs can be seen, as Reid and Hresko (1981, p. 185) noted, in policy formation through Public Law 94-142 by legalizing behaviorism (see also Heshusius, 1982, and Poplin, 1985).

As a result of this sense of disaffection, important changes are occurring within the field of exceptionality. The acceptance of qualitative approaches to research readily comes to mind, as do attempts to move away from assessment through quantifying outcomes of student past learning to a focus on trying to understand the more holistic, dynamic, interactive, and interpresonal processes that occur during teaching and learning. None of these changes, to be sure, promise simple solutions. But what they do, as Edgerton (1975, p. 129) stated with regard to qualitative research, is they provide evidence for rejecting simple answers in favor of a fuller and more accurate understanding of complex human behavior.

What is urged here is that social scientists (and special educators) open up their self-imposed boundaries of scientific inquiry, and invite the arts and humanities in to provide a broader visions within which to ask questions and formulate answers. For, as Heisenberg's oft-quoted dictum states: "What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning."



Many poets and storytellers have contributed a wealth of observations such as those contained in novels about disabled or mentally retarded persons (Blatt, 1976; Jolley, 1983; Kennedy, 1964; Konrad, 1976; Spencer, 1986; Stewart, 1984); stories about exceptional persons by Steinbeck, Litvinov, Joyce Carol Oates, and others (in Landau, Epstein, & Stone, 1978); and the prose poems of stigmatized and handicapped persons by Stilma (1986). And what they offer special educators is indeed not in conflict with science. The eminent scientist Bronowski (1956, p. 19) stated that the likeness between science and art is in the creative act of the mind that gives birth to both good science and good art. The images and metaphors of poetry, he said, are as coherent and exact as the conceptual tools of science.

Bronowski was echoed by Cousins (1985) in his conversations with four Nobel Laureates (Sir John Eccles, Brian Josephson, Ilya Prigogine, and Roger Sperry. These scientists combined insights, respectively, from neuroscience, physics, chemistry, and biology). Cousins discussed how the media that scientists and artists employ may be more similar than first meets the eye: Poetic insight through inner ways of knowing is necessary both for the creation and for the understanding of science (Cousins, 1985, pp. 39-42). In his dialogues Cousins cited poetry by Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Nelly Sachs, Theodore Roethke, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Rainer Maria Rilke to show how the understandings of scientists, artists, and humanists complement and overlap, and how together they provide a fuller grasp of reality than any could provide alone.

Within the study of exceptionality, Burton Blatt was probably the first special educator to join the explicit calls for the arts and humanities. He criticized the "scholarly journals and the professional schools" for "short shrifting the painter, the poet, the musician" (Blatt, 1984, p. 627). He stated further: "It is even possible that the field of mental retardation or the professional teaching would suffer less with more artists and poets and fewer professionals and administrators" (p. 628). Other voices calling for the humanities and the arts to take their place alongside the more traditional scientific approaches include Polakow-Suransky (1982) concerning childhood development, and Shapiro (1984) relative to the teaching of science.


With every new direction suggested, social scientists ask, What will it exactly accomplish? How will we be able to measure its effectiveness? For the humanities and the arts, such questions cannot be answered in the spirit in which they are normally asked. As Bohm (1980) discussed, until the rise of Western science, to measure meant to grasp the "innermost being" or the "essence" of something. With the rise of the mechanistic/reductionistic paradigm, measurement became a process of quantification and of comparison with an external standard, and prediction became a major purpose in the pursuit of knowledge. The humanities and the arts do not lend themselves to these conceptions of measurement and prediction. It has never been possible to predict the exact benefits and effects of reading Shakespeare or Emerson; however, no one would doubt the essential insights gained from the processes we go through when reading these humanists and artists.



Including such insights in special education would restore the importance of recognizing and justifying appropriate values as a way of knowing. Educators might gain a fuller and more integrated concept of the humanness of exceptional persons and their relationships. If special educators invite artists and humanists to express their understandings, textbooks might become works that more students really want to read, and professional journals might become more coherent and meaningful.



Artists' and humanists' insights into the phenomena of exceptionality may better sensitize researchers, policy makers, and administrators to the individual and social complexity of the field of special education. Biklen (in press) has offered an example of how such a sensitizing process may occur. He showed how the complimenting and overlapping themes of literature and policy formation provide a more complete grasp of reality (of which researchers and policy makers are an inseparable part), than either literature or policy formation could provide alone. Biklen examined novels and short stories about disabled or mentally retarded persons (including those by Jolley, 1983, Kennedy, 1964, Konrad, 1976, Spencer, 1986 and, Steward, 1984). He lifted out the themes of the stories to draw analogies to the themes of social policy concerning physical and mental disabilities. To paraphrase Biklen, social scientists tend to think of social policy as the act of remediating social problems. But social policy--including its objectives, its beneficiaries, and its professionals--is ultimately a function of the culture of which it is an integral part. The question then becomes how policy makers can achieve a sufficient level of reflection or self-criticism. As Biklen stated, it is important that social policy makers look through a different lens--this time through literature, which provides the distance of perspective necessary to see the whole culture anew.

One might further imagine how teacher education programs would be encouraged to draw on the arts and humanities to prepare their students for the complex and human task of working with exceptional persons. For, as it is, one hardly knows where to turn in the professional literature to help prepare students for the deeply human dimension of the work they will be doing. The humanities and the arts, because of their tacit and interiorizing properties, can prepare students for these dimensions where science cannot.

As Polanyi, in his classic work The Tacit Dimension (1966, p. 16) stated, tacit and personal knowing interiorizes as opposed to externalizes (as is the case with dominant scientific approaches to knowing). Interiorization fosters self-reflection and a deeper grasp of the complex interdependencies between self, other, and society, which cannot be articulated by scientific methods alone. Van Manen (1985, p. 178), in his discussion of how novels teach, referred to this tacit knowing gained from literature as a "pre-critical" response, a knowing "that is more like a living. We indirectly come to know what we cannot grasp, see, hear, or feel in a direct or conceptual way."


Interiorization and tacit knowing also puts one more directly in touch with the framework for moral acts and judgments: it provides tacit moral knowledge (as contrasted to explicit, logical moral reasoning): what one knows is morally right although one may not be able to articulate it (see Polanyi, 1966, p. 17). Thus, Bronowski (1956) says of poetry:

Poetry does not move us to be just or unjust, in itself. It moves us to thoughts in whose light justice and injustice are seen in fearful sharpness of outline. (p. 73)

Through such a rendering of tacit moral knowledge, the humanities and the arts can help to prepare students for the complexity and morally demanding dimensions of their work in ways science cannot.

Contemporary thought, then, is with increasing force urging social scientists to develop fruitful relationships among the arts and science. This article was developed to contribute to such a process in the study of exceptionality.


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LOUS HESHUSIUS is Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada.
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Date:Sep 1, 1988
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