Education is taste and skill

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Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

Susan Sontag, Notes On “Camp”

I just finished reading Edward Tufte‘s Envisioning Information and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Put simply, I’m floored. They were both deep, beautiful books, and, particularly interesting for me, both were superb criticisms (of, respectively, information design and comics). They both self-consciously embarked on the hard task of developing taste, of teaching how to see.

Charts, diagrams, graphs, tables, guides, instructions, directories, and maps comprise an enormous accumulation of material. Once described by Philip Morrison as “cognitive art,” it embodies tens of trillions of images created and multiplied the world over every year. Despite the beauty and utility of the best work, design of information has engaged little critical or aesthetic notice: there is no Museum of Cognitive Art [yet]. This book could serve as a partial catalog for such a collection.

Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information, Introduction

My current appreciation (read infatuation) of criticism has been long coming but perhaps inevitable. As far as I can now grok, there are two and only two genres of education: education in skill and education in taste. Every other truly educational book is a critique.

School would do well to acknowledge this. Skill is how to do, criticism is how to see. Both are pointless without one another and a great mistake of modern education is to concern itself only with the former. It doesn’t generally think of pupils as criticism-capable, which is bollocks, and, much more harmfully still, it perverts criticism by trying to cast it as a skill. That’s how you get to rote equation solving or sickening memorization of periods of literature and its important figures.

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