STEM versus the Arts — YES

Sunday, April 30, 2017

As published in The Post & Courier March 28, 2017

MUCH IS MADE ABOUT science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and for good reason. Throughout history their ingenuity has propelled us to continuous new heights. Think nuclear power, computers, the internet, and smartphones. Before those came the internal combustion engine, the telephone, radio, TV, cinema, submarines, and flight. The list continues with mind-bending breakthroughs in medicine, manufacturing, and space travel, not to mention the simple wheel, hammer, and arch.

It is no surprise that “STEM” mirrors our own brain stem which, as the bridge to our spinal chord, enables the brain to vitalize our entire body. This analogy alone helps explain why the field of STEM excites so much interest, inspiration, and financial reward.

Meanwhile, the arts and humanities keep losing their luster—and funding—because they are harder to quantify. Yes, they are creative and beautiful. Yes, they help learning. But are they as vital as STEM? If so, show me the proof in metrics that I can justify and monetize.

This makes for a sound argument except in one way: it insists on measuring the arts with the metrics of STEM. “Give me the numbers on beauty. Show me the stats for inspiration. Unveil the formula behind the equations of civilization, culture, and the human spirit.”

It is futile, of course, to convince the mind about something beyond the reach of logical exactitude. Especially something that by its very nature finds expression through the ethereal channels of literature, music, theater, and dance, and whose own ethereal quality is precisely what makes these art forms so evocative. Could it be that the arts, like us, “stem” from the same elusive origin that scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians have never fully fathomed and still cannot measure?

In this sense, the arts remain one of the most vital ways for us to marvel at and probe the mysteries of birth, life, death, and universal existence. Beyond all the things that we measure and mold lies something else which the arts remind us of and steer us to as they nudge and nurture our curiosity about creation.

© Olivia Ingle 2017 • All rights reserved

Interestingly, the word art means “to join.” It also lies at the root of the word “arteries” whose distribution of blood connects the heart to all systems and organs of the body. As the largest of these, the brain depends on some 2,000 quarts of blood a day to deliver the oxygen, fat, and other nutrients it needs to execute its bewildering array of moment-to-moment calculations.

Perhaps then we need to borrow the letter “A” from Arts and use it to form a new acronym—STEAM—with the implication that something in addition to science, technology, engineering, and math is needed to propel us forward in the full sense of the word “civilization.”

The advancement of civilization depends on building new bridges, but it is not strictly about bridges or how they are built. It is about crossing over them to new potential on the other side. As the American virtuoso Isaac Stern once said to a young musician in China, “You don’t use music to play the violin; you use the violin to play music.” The same is true of mankind’s instruments and ingenuity. They ultimately serve something beyond themselves: something that the arts in particular embolden us to keep reaching for, rediscovering, and trying to comprehend.

Consider for a moment: if you could re-draw history from the beginning, imagine coloring back in all the STEM achievements while leaving out the pyramids, the sphinx, Greek architecture, the musings of Socrates and Plato, the transcriptions of the Bible, Lao Tzu, and Buddha, the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, the writings of Homer, Shakespeare, and Whitman, the canvases of Leonardo, Raphael, and Rembrandt, the marvel of Russian ballet, Martha Graham, and the New York Philharmonic—to name just a few peaks of western culture. After discarding all these as “immeasurable,” what would remain to underpin the purpose and soul of humanity?

It is not a question of—and need not be a choice between—which is more vital: the brain or the heart, STEM or the arts. It is a matter of recognizing how together they form a critical whole and how that whole is our key to a positive future. For it to become a reality, however, neither the arts nor the sciences can go it alone because at their core they depend on each other, perhaps now more than ever.

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
~ Johann Goethe