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The Need for Literacy in Both the Sciences and the Arts

With all the excitement concerning the worldwide release of the new Cosmos series with Neil deGrasse Tyson this month, it's a good time to repost this piece from 2009 on the remarkable Mae Jemison. Young people need role models, and Dr. Jemison is a great one. According to The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence: "Mae Jemison, with her perseverance and commitment to science, serves as a great role model for future scientists everywhere."

Mae Jemison: The arts and sciences are not separate
MaejemisonMae Jemison is an astronaut, a medical doctor, a scientist, an engineer, 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 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, scientist, medical doctor, teacher, former Peace Corps Volunteer, multilingual, Stanford graduate, 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...."

Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live."         
                                         —  Mae Jemison

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

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