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Science and the Arts: If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em

Short history of art vs. science

Art and science have been at something like “odds” ever since the Romantic period in European culture. The debate between the two centered on which of these human endeavors deserved pre-eminence in the cultural hierarchy. Which revealed the most important truths about human existence? On one side were the scientists, who wondered whether art was superfluous in a suffering, backward world. On the other side were the artists, who wondered whether unrestrained progress in science could be a menace to society. We still teach our students Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s answer to the latter question, written in the early nineteenth century. Frankenstein’s literary truth has endured, while much of the era’s science has not.

Part of the historical discussion of “art versus science” concerned the collection of information. Nineteenth-century thinkers believed that artists collected their “data” by way of their senses and processed that data through their emotions—and the senses and emotions were unreliable as mediators of truth. Scientists, on the other hand, followed a rigorous process to arrive at objective truths that could be proven over and over again, and so were unassailable.

STEAM - Arts and Science

Photo Credits to Bentley University

More alike than different

But like the debunked left brain/right brain myth, the more we learn about the brain and the more we study the creative process, the more we find that the creative mind and the scientific mind work in similar ways. Neurons, we have discovered, do not respect the left-right partition that earlier thinkers imposed upon the brain. We have come to recognize that the most successful scientific minds are creative and imaginative, and that the most successful artists follow a process similar to the scientific method and that their ideas and work are guided by intent and intellect as well as aesthetic judgment and emotion.

What is equally important to the education of children has been the realization that the truths that art and science impart are both essential to the quality of human life. At one time in human history—and a long, long period of time it was—the arts were arguably as essential as food, shelter, and tools to the survival and stability of human cultures. There were few cultures that did not engage in some form of art, which argues for its having furnished a survival advantage to the species, a thesis persuasively argued in “What Is Art For?” by Ellen Dissanayake. But the arts are no longer tightly woven into the fabric of human life as they were in earlier cultures. They are too often thought to be the exclusive preserve of “the special” and “the talented,” and can be dispensed with for the “ordinary” child. This thinking impacts our educational priorities and does a disservice to children who have not manifested a “gift” for art or music in childhood. Their lack of a discernable gift does not mean that their involvement in these activities would not benefit them in many other areas of their school lives and in their lives in general. “Students who make things feel satisfied and empowered through the act of making, and they develop creative confidence, which is key to seeking innovative solutions to problems,” says Lisa Yokana, an educator at Scarsdale High School.

Creativity is innate

A middle-schooler who freezes up when confronted with a blank piece of paper upon which he or she must create an image is a child whose creative impulse has not been encouraged or valued for its own sake. Or the child who is not automatically pleased with an image he or she has drawn and repudiates it as “no good,” has been convinced that there is “good drawing” and “bad drawing.” But all children have the creative impulse. Watch a pre-school-age child with a pail and a shovel on a beach, and the will to create, build, and represent life through the medium of sand will be evident. And so will the absorption and enjoyment in doing so. The will to create, and the enjoyment in creating, are worthy of encouragement in schools simply because they are innate in children.

STEM may not be enough

Unfortunately for the arts, “educational policies and practices rest on what is valued in society,” arts educator Arthur Elfland wrote in 2002. That value is currently invested in the STEM disciplines. If there were any doubts about this, they should have been put to rest with the unveiling of the Next Generation Science Standards, a mighty effort whose development was guided in large part by the need to provide “the foundational knowledge for those who will become the scientists, engineers, technologists, and technicians of the future.” With a global technological “skills deficit” looming, policy makers, CEOs, and educators are concerned about keeping the economic engine going, remaining competitive in a global market, and ensuring the employability of graduating high school and college students. Hence, the current focus on STEM, and the further marginalization of the arts.

While these global concerns are valid, it should also be noted that education in the arts fosters “deeper learning” and develops employability, or “soft,” skills and mindsets that STEM subjects may not. The arts foster collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and perseverance—some of the skills that employers say are scarce in today’s labor pool. The arts also promote social-emotional learning in schools, leading to lower discipline rates (“improved emotional self-regulation”), a greater capacity for compassion (“awareness of peers’ emotional states”), and better writing (“confidence in expressing complex ideas stemming from personal thoughts and feelings”).

It must also be said that an education in the arts may also create artisans, painters, sculptors, actors and directors, designers, dancers, and musicians who, in the aggregate, bring catharsis, delight, and intellectual stimulation to our lives. Art, simply for art’s sake, is a boon to us all. Children who grow up without it are less likely to attend cultural events later in life, so the lack of support for the arts in schools becomes a lack of support for the arts in general.

ESSA and the arts: STEAM

Although the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows the use of funding for arts education in support of a “well-rounded education,” schools can also elect to spend the same funds on competing curriculum for such things as physical education, civics and government, foreign languages, computer science, and environmental education, all important in themselves. It’s up to the schools to decide what the focus of their elective curricula will be. And, so far, only a handful of states have included arts education in their accountability plans.

With such a small pie, cut up into so many tiny slices, there may be but one hope for the wider application of arts curricula in public schools. The other encouraging opening in ESSA is the law’s explicit endorsement of rolling the arts into STEM curricula. The law suggests “integrating other academic subjects, including the arts, into STEM subject programs.”

Voilà: STEAM! A little ominous for English language arts and social studies is their apparent inclusion in the category of “other academic subjects,” raising the prospect—remote, it must be hoped—of STEAMELASS.

Perhaps, for the reasons outlined above, the inclusion of the arts in STEM subjects will raise student engagement and, consequently, grades. If that happens, the arts may re-earn their place of importance in the education of children.

Next blog: How Does STEAM Work?




About Barbara Crook

Barbara Crook is an ELA editor at Victory Productions.

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