Future stars of art and science


Nicky Morgan (Secretary of State for Education) has infuriated the Cultural sector by telling all young people that if they study Arts and Humanities it will “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. She said the idea that these subjects would help keep your options open “couldn’t be further from the truth”. This is a patently ridiculous thing to announce when the creative industries are bringing in £8 million to the economy every hour, and that’s without adequate investment in arts education or its professions.

Lots of people who are powerful with words, such as Josie Long, are making great resisting statements. I want to take a deeper look at the biases and categorical conundrums that lie behind her announcement. She must have believed herself to be totally justified. I suspect her sense of justification comes from two things for which there is something to be said:

One: There is something to be said for pointing out to young people that a successful arts career – especially as a performer – is extremely competitive. Celebrity and good sustained earnings are possible for a small minority, who need a lifelong supply of talent, dedication, opportunities and networks. (To tackle this we need to ensure arts-motivated young people develop a broad set of capacities around their goals. We also need to decouple dreams of a creative life from dreams of material wealth.)

Two: There is something to be said for encouraging more young people, especially those from unrepresented groups, to pursue more advanced study of STEM subjects when it is the right time for advanced study and if they are interested. (To tackle this issue we have to look at underlying factors that lead to inequality of educational opportunities – including high tuition fees – and put curiosity before attainment in education.)

Her thoughtless statement betrays a general disrespect for the Arts in the policy-making classes. Actually, that disrespect stretches to Science – as it is really a failure to embrace deep, slow, experimental enquiry.

One factor breeding the disrespect of the Arts is the persisting myth of the separation of the Arts and Sciences. Universities perpetuate this by separating their faculties and requiring certain entry qualifications for courses that force students to choose either Arts or Science paths at 16 years or earlier. There are many voices calling for more interdisciplinarity, but these are mostly from areas that are already bridges, such as Anthropology and Environmental studies. But there are also advocates of both Arts or Sciences who defend the discrete validity of their specific and general fields. For example, Lewis Wolpert makes strong claims that Art and Science are fundamentally separate.

If we are to do justice to both Arts and Sciences, and ensure that both remain open to as many young people as possible, for the sake of all our futures, we have to dig deeper into the layers.

There are three broad layers that might define the Arts or Sciences:
– Cultures of enquiry (which institute and perpetuate disciplines)
– Practical modes of enquiry (the possible or emergent practices which begin to form disciplines)
– Contexts of enquiry (which offer situated problems for subjects, and give rise to relevant practical modes of enquiry)

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Cultures of enquiry

Wolpert and others fall down in their logic in failing to distinguish between these cultures of ‘communities of enquiry’ and possible/emergent practices of enquiry. The practices are in one sense independent of the cultures. It may be right to assert that there are two distinct strongholds of enquiry cultures, the Arts and Sciences, but these are bridged and fringed by all kinds of other groups (museologists, cultural ecologists, architects, digital makers etc). These two cultures have become divided due to the territories marked from within institutions, and due to the different purposes ascribed to those institutions by their funders and policy-makers. The more that one associates with one or other of these communities of enquiry and the more specialised you become in your methods, the more that other communities of enquiry will appear fundamentally different from you. That is culturation, and it is especially divisive in our broader culture that values specialisation and is tolerant of tribal competitiveness.

Practical modes of enquiry

At the level of practice compared to the cultural level, Arts and Sciences have much more in common and are much more entwined, especially if you review human enquiry from a long range into the past or future, or into indigenous cultures. Both the Art and Science strongholds are valid because they both support diverse enquiries into the meanings, workings and potentials of the world. These enquiries unfold from the distinctive feature of the human animal, as a learning species, and their many possibilities arise from diverse humans interacting with their particular contexts as these change over time.

I think there are four broad practical modes of enquiry:

Techne: technological practices (being motivated – often extrinsically – to form objects or ideas by following an existing method)
Poiesis: creative or inventive practices (being motivated – often intrinsically – to bring new forms into being)
Episteme: Knowledge-seeking practices (being motivated – both extrinsically and intrinsically – to bring knowledge into being)
Ludism: Playful practices (being motivated – often intrinsically – to play in order to see what you can learn or create, or purely for pleasure and social bonding)

Science cultures favour, fund and highlight Techne and Episteme. Arts cultures favour, fund and highlight Poiesis and Ludism. But there is no fundamental reason why knowledge cannot be sought through play or invention, or why stories cannot be crafted through attention to techne/craft or why new designs cannot be based on deep research. Indeed without those modal crossings, the Arts would be irrelevant and empty, and the Sciences would be formless and distant.

Contexts of enquiry

Contexts are the living grounds for subjects. They suggest different practical modes of enquiry which then become instituted as disciplines. For example, the context of healthy forests might throw up the subject of mycology, which necessitates technical and epistemic practices of close observation and controlled trials in different conditions. However, if we start to think about the contexts and purposes of mycology enquiries, we might ask ‘how can we use the special properties of fungus to solve forest health problems?’ Or even, ‘what can we make with fungus that might solve some of the world’s problems?’ Then, more poietic and even ludic practices arise.

Wolpert uses too few signifiers of difference between the two strongholds, his main one being that Art is about individual expression and Science is about collaborative problem-solving. The more that enquiries are contextualised and focused on solving problems for the future, the mutual connections between Arts and Sciences become more apparent and the bridging enquiries become more important. The Arts are becoming less about individual ego and more about social engagement, design thinking and cultural therapy. I know less about how the Sciences are changing, but it is possible that there is more support for more ecological and human enquiries.

I’m aware I haven’t mentioned the term ‘the Humanities’. I see the Humanities as a Context for enquiry and as a group of questions about what it is to be human. These questions can be tackled by scientific methods (Archaeology, Social Sciences etc) or they can be tackled in more aesthetic and imaginative ways (the Arts), or in ways that these overlap. I also think the Humanities have to play a strong role in dialogue with Scientific enquiries into non-human or extra-human subjects.

Most technocratic/political advocates of Science education are really talking about serving industrial technology – and knowledge transfer – rather than just objective episteme. Our future stars will be distinguished by having a whole range of skills across those four modes of enquiry. Successful young adults will be able to combine these modes in novel ways, to define new questions, in response to fast changing contexts. Instead what we have is an education system that confusingly divides students into two tiers: academic (for intellectual science? or technical careers?) and vocational (for the intellectual/fine arts? or technical creative careers?). It’s time to end this confusion, while also opening the possibility for more combined and flexible routes of study and work.


One response to “Future stars of art and science

  1. Reblogged this on María de los Ángeles Picone and commented:
    This is an amazing piece. Back in high school, teachers encouraged me to go into STEM majors. However, because of the reasons listed by Bridget here, I did not. It is not an easy path, but it is the one I am passionate about.

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