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Mae Jemison: The arts and sciences are not separate

Maejemison Mae Jemison is an astronaut, a medical doctor, an art collector, and a dancer. In 1992, Dr. Jemison was the first African-American woman to go into space. Since then she's become a crusader for science education, and for a new vision of learning that combines arts and sciences, intuition and logic. I think this 2002 TED talk below, recently featured on the TED website, is an important one to watch. The presentation itself is well structured, clear, and delivered with passion, although — and somewhat ironically, given her design sensibilities — the visuals used did not match the quality of her talk. Yet, I do not point to this talk as an example of great visuals or even of perfect delivery. Rather, I think it's the content of the talk that will cause you to pause and reflect, especially if you care anything about education. Dr. Jemison says it's foolish to even think in terms of having to choose between being analytical or being intuitive and likens this false choice to having to choose between being idealistic or realistic. "You need both," she says.

Art & creativity or science & analysis: a false choice
Thinking_boy Dr. Jemison's point is simple and it's not new, yet here we are today still thinking, for the most part, that science and the arts are completely separate from one another and that scientists are not creative and that artists and other "creatives" are not analytical. Worse still, we have educational institutions that guide students away from their artistic interests because "you'll never get a job doing that." What a waste. Looking back at my own K-12 education, I wish I had had more exposure to science and math, especially astronomy, physics, and statistics which were all but missing for me until college. But, I wish I also had taken even more art and music classes instead of avoiding fine art classes, for example, out of guilt that it was not serious academic work.

"If we keep thinking that the arts are separate from the sciences...and that it's cute to say 'I don't understand anything about [the arts] or I don't understand anything about [the sciences]' then we're going to have problems."   
                                      —  Mae Jemison

Brain_art_science I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to be Leonardo da Vinci or that we all should be enlightened, well-rounded generalists. We need specialization. But even specialists have gained from following their inherent curiosity and by following a more holistic approach to their own education, an education that extends far beyond formal schooling. Over the years I've met many people in the high-tech industry, for example, that in addition to being successful engineers and programmers, etc., were also talented musicians or had obsessions in the arts that went far beyond a passive interest or hobby. In spite of the stereotypes about "technology nerds," the successful ones I've met always struck me as being sort of modern day Renaissance men/women, possessing both a well-rounded eduction in the arts and sciences and a deep, deep expertise in a special field.

Mae Jemison: NASA astronaut, medical doctor, artist. (Photo: NASA)

Science or art? A ridiculous choice. The arts and sciences are connected. And our mission, says Dr. Jemison, is to reconcile and reintegrate science and the arts. Both the arts and the sciences, says Dr. Jemison, are not merely connected but manifestations of the same thing — they are our attempt to build an understanding of the universe, and our attempt to influence things (things in the universe internal to ourselves and the universe external to ourselves). "The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity — [they] are our attempt as humans to build an understanding of the world around us...."

Speaking of the role of art & music in education
Quincy Mae Jemison's TED presentation ties in nicely with a piece that came out this week by the legendary Quincy Jones called Arts Education in America. Quincy asks "...can we really run the risk of becoming a culturally bankrupt nation because we have not inserted a curriculum into our educational institutions that will teach and nurture creativity in our children?" The most interesting part of Quincy's article were the words taken from the 1943 War Department Education Manual EM 603 that got its recommendations on jazz completely wrong. (Read it — you'll be amazed.) Kind of makes you wonder what else — in spite of good intentions — our educational institutions and leaders are getting completely wrong today? If our recommendations are based on the assumptions that science is not a place for creative thinking or that the arts/humanities have no room for analysis and logic or that students need to make a choice about what kind of person they are — logical or intuitive — then something tells me we're getting it wrong. We need both science and the arts...and we need to do better teaching both.

"It has been proven time and time again in countless studies that students who actively participate in arts education are twice as likely to read for pleasure, have strengthened problem-solving and critical thinking skills, are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair...."
                                                         — Quincy Jones

Bill Strickland makes change with a slide show
Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity



Michael Sporer

As a person involved in education for 33 years, I could not agree more! I will watch Mae's presentation. Bill Strickland's talk is inspirational, and Sir Ken is a must watch for everyone!

I was also in the separational mindset at one time, but through personal experience, have learned that both sides of the brain need nourishment. I went from a completely left-brained person to writing poetry. Wonderful transformation.


I agree, with all of my heart. I'm a trained engineer, but I feel the secret to understand how technology should be integrated into every day organisational and human life are found, not in technology, but in the other disciplines of life.

Dr. Pedro Ricart

For a spanish version of this post go to my blog

Robert Smelser

Thank you for sharing this. I've been trying to get this idea across to fellow teachers for years, and this is another great resource. It's so important to be able to understand the technical side of our creative impulses as well as being able to imagine creative uses of traditionally left-brain content.

As an aside, I really think of few of the currently struggling corporations might be in better shape had they spent more time in the right-side of their brains.


Thanks for posting Mae Jemison's TED Talk.

I wonder when TED will have John Taylor Gatto do a presentation...

Here's an excerpt from John Taylor Gatto's "Weapons of Mass Instruction." To read the entire piece: http://tinyurl.com/deyhu9

"What was asked of prosperous children in the 1970s would have been standard for children of coal miners and steel workers in the 1940s and 1950s. Many theories abound for why this was so, but only one rings true to me: From WWII onwards it is extremely easy to trace the spread of a general belief in the upper realms of management and academy that most of the population was incurably feeble-minded, permanently stuck at a mental level of twelve or under. Since efforts to change this were doomed to be futile, why undergo the expense of trying? Or to put a humane cast on the argument, which I once heard a junior high school principal expound at a public school board meeting: Why worry kids and parents with the stress of trying to do something they are biologically unable to achieve?

This was precisely the outlook Abraham Lincoln had ridiculed in 1859 (see Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life); precisely the outlook of Edward Thorndike, inventor of "educational psychology" at Columbia Teachers College; precisely the outlook of H. H. Goddard, chairman of the psychology department at Princeton; precisely the outlook of great private corporate foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie; precisely the outlook of Charles Darwin and his first cousin, Francis Galton. You can find this point of view active in Plato, in John Calvin, in Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, in Johann Fichte, and in so many other places it would take a long book to do justice to them.

As long as ordinary Americans like Ben Franklin's dad were in charge of educating their young, America escaped domination from the deadly assumptions of permanent inferiority - whether spiritual, intellectual, or biological - which provide the foundation for rigid social classes, by justifying them. As long as the crazy quilt of libertarian impulses found in the American bazaar prevailed, a period which takes us to the Civil War, America was a place of miracles for ordinary people through self-education. To a fractional degree it still is, thanks to tradition owing nothing to post-WWII government action; but only for those lucky enough to have families which dismiss the assumptions of forced schooling - and hence avoid damage by the weapons of mass instruction.

As the German Method, intended to convert independent Bartleby spirits into human resources, choked off easy escape routs, it wasn't only children who were hurt, but our national prospects. Our founding documents endowed common Americans with rights no government action could alienate, liberty foremost among them. The very label "school" makes a mockery of these rights. We are a worse nation for this radical betrayal visited upon us by generations of political managers masquerading as leaders. And we are a materially poorer nation, as well."

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