Observation Deck

A Head of STEAM

The case for teaching arts in the Digital Age.

Steam Final Flat 02

Regular readers of this column may recall that my father was a scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Beginning his work in the 1950s, when computers were the size of classrooms and programming was something that was done by executives at one of the television or radio networks, he was a pioneer in the study of how computers could be used in education. By the late 1970s and early ’80s—just before Bell Labs was rocked by the court ruling that broke up its parent company, AT&T, ultimately ending its reign as the world’s foremost corporate research facility—the world viewed computing as the future. Regularly, politicians and even more credible prognosticators insisted that in order to compete and meet the needs of tomorrow’s information technology field, America had to raise a generation with extraordinary math and science skills.

This argument drove my father, who had a tendency toward irascibility to begin with, to distraction. At home, he railed—as he had at conferences—that while math and science skills would be important in this new age, it was fundamentally wrong to think that we would actually need more students in the future who had them: Ever-more powerful computers, he argued, would actually do much of the work that had required scientific, mathematical, and technical skills in people. If anything, we might need fewer people who could crunch a number or design a program, he said. (To be clear, he certainly acknowledged that some math and science skills would be needed; and, as a scientist, he valued those talents above all others, notes his son, the English major.)

But to this very moment, his point—right though I believe it to be—is not fully appreciated.

Today, there remains good reason to cultivate these skills, particularly in schools where an increasing number of students seem to be less willing to challenge themselves and more inclined to take the path of least resistance to colleges and careers. (And that seems to be every path: A former Duke University professor, scrutinizing transcript records between 1940 and 2013 from more than 400 U.S. colleges, recently found that today’s coddled students are three times more likely to be awarded A’s in course grades as those 70 years ago. The study also notes that this is not because students are getting smarter: Rather, it is because contemporary society seemingly wants them to feel good about themselves. A Washington Post op-ed likened this phenomenon to giving out trophies to competitors “just for showing up” to play.)

Yet since my father’s days at Bell, the rationale for hoarding prospective STEM students into a classroom hasn’t changed: Computers are still driving tomorrow’s development. Yes, the world is wired together, which has created more economic opportunity and activity via the Internet. And, yes, powerful computers and sensors—not to mention access to data and the ability to analyze it—have empowered scientific breakthroughs. But is pushing STEM, and STEM alone, still the right approach? The answer is yes and no: That is, what we are going to need is a modern reality that requires STEAM power—adding arts to the mix—in order to thrive in the new environment.

Often the argument in favor of arts education centers on the idea that it helps promote creativity. While this is no doubt true, the case seems to suggest that science and math education does not do the same—which is ridiculous. Some of the greatest examples of creativity in human history have come from scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and others who have reimagined, reinterpreted, and remade our world.

We need to focus on arts education for different, profoundly fundamental, reasons: We need the arts in order to be human. Artists help us explore the mysteries of life and venture to places that we seldom take ourselves in our daily workaday existence.

Yet over the past decade in the United States, schools have been forced to make major cuts to arts education as a result of the enhanced focus on testing that was mandated by the Bush era’s No Child Left Behind program. Of the nation’s elementary schools, for example, only 3 percent offered dance classes and just 4 percent offered theater instruction during the 2009-10 school year; however, in 1999-2000, both of these numbers were at 20 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Such dramatic cutbacks in arts-education funding seem to suggest that, in this new world of microprocessors and artificial intelligence, musical, literary, theatrical, dance, and other capabilities are not as important as they once were or that somehow the United States cannot afford them as it instead prioritizes “harder” pursuits.

But think about the new world we are entering: Within a decade perhaps every person on the planet will be connected in one cultural ecosystem for the first time. Historically, cultures have stopped at borders, natural and imagined, and in so doing they have played a role in defining communities and the differences among us; these cultural differences have driven conflict and tension—something exemplified in today’s headlines about the clash between Islam and the West, or a fear of refugees, or a need to build walls to separate people.

But we now have an opportunity—and an imperative—to use these technologies to help us imagine cultures without borders: That is, through creative expression, we can link people, regardless of where they live or what ancient biases they hold. New technologies, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence to tech-driven phenomena like the ubiquity of recording and website-building tools, enable individuals to express themselves and to distribute their work to global audiences, of an unlimited size, with the push of a button.

Your computer hardware, remarkable as it is, does not shape how people view one another, their feelings about the great issues of the day, their moods, or the subjects they discuss in their communities. Neither do switches, routers, the Internet, or even great software packages. Human connections continue to be made through the expression of human feelings.

Think of the big changes in public attitudes of the past decade or so. Big sweeping changes like altered views on LGBT rights, women’s rights, climate change, or the Arab Spring. Were these changes really driven by political speeches alone, or were they also and sometimes primarily driven by the movies, songs, novels, cartoons, humor, and other forms of artistic expression about these issues?

We need to invest in arts education, along with science and tech education, because it produces well-rounded students; because it produces more humane people; because it protects our cultural heritage and enables students to understand some of the great creations that have shaped the growth of civilization; because the arts play a big role in our economies.

But we also need to do it because we are at an unprecedented technological and cultural watershed, when not only the arts will change, but the potential that each individual artist has for changing the world will become even greater. It does not take a great creative mind to see the world needs such change. But it will take great and well-trained creative minds to drive that change and to ensure that it takes us to the better future we all seek.

A version of this article originally appeared in the May/June issue of FP magazine.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

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