David Byrne & Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain the Importance of an Arts Education (and How It Strengthens Science & Civilization)

Unless you’re a pol­i­cy geek or an edu­ca­tor, you may nev­er have heard of the “STEM vs. STEAM” debate. STEM, of course, stands for the for­mu­la of “sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, and math­e­mat­ics” as a base­line for edu­ca­tion­al cur­ricu­lum. STEAM argues for the neces­si­ty of the arts, which in pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary edu­ca­tion have waxed and waned depend­ing on pre­vail­ing the­o­ry and, per­haps more impor­tant­ly, polit­i­cal will. Andrew Carnegie may have donat­ed hand­some­ly to high­er edu­ca­tion, but he frowned on the study of “dead lan­guages” and oth­er use­less pur­suits. Indus­tri­al­ist Richard Teller Crane opined in 1911 that no one with “a taste for lit­er­a­ture has the right to be hap­py” because “the only men enti­tled to hap­pi­ness… are those who are use­ful.”

It’s a long way from think­ing of poets as “the unac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world,” as Per­cy Shel­ley wrote in his “Defence of Poet­ry” 90 years ear­li­er, but Shelley’s essay shows that even then the arts need­ed defend­ing. By the time we get to STEM think­ing, the arts have dis­ap­peared entire­ly from the con­ver­sa­tion, become an after­thought, as ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, rather than wealthy indus­tri­al­ists, decide to trim them away from pub­lic pol­i­cy and pri­vate invest­ment. The sit­u­a­tion may be improv­ing, as more edu­ca­tors embrace STEAM, but “there’s ten­sion,” as Neil DeGrasse Tyson says in the excerpt above from his StarTalk inter­view show on Nat Geo. In the kinds of fund­ing crises most school dis­tricts find them­selves in, “school boards are won­der­ing, do we cut the art, do we keep the sci­ence?”

The choice is a false one, argues for­mer Talk­ing Heads front­man and some­times Cas­san­dra-like cul­tur­al the­o­rist David Byrne. “In order to real­ly suc­ceed in what­ev­er… math and the sci­ences and engi­neer­ing and things like that,” Byrne tells Tyson above, “you have to be able to think out­side the box, and do cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing… the cre­ative think­ing is in the arts. A cer­tain amount of arts edu­ca­tion…” will help you “suc­ceed more and bring more to the world… bring­ing dif­fer­ent worlds togeth­er has def­i­nite tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits. To kind of cut one, or sep­a­rate them, is to injure them and crip­ple them.”

The idea goes back to Aris­to­tle, and to the cre­ation of uni­ver­si­ties, when medieval thinkers tout­ed the Lib­er­al Arts—the Triv­i­um (gram­mar, rhetoric, and log­ic) and Quadriv­i­um (arith­metic, geom­e­try, music, and astronomy)—as mod­els for a bal­anced edu­ca­tion. Tyson agrees that the arts and sci­ences should not be sev­ered: “Sup­pose they did that back in Renais­sance Europe? What would Europe be with­out the sup­port and inter­est in art?” He goes even fur­ther, say­ing, “We mea­sure the suc­cess of a civ­i­liza­tion by how well they treat their cre­ative peo­ple.”

It’s a bold state­ment that emerges from a longer con­ver­sa­tion Tyson has with Byrne, which you can hear in the StarTalk Radio pod­cast above. Tyson is joined by co-host Maeve Hig­gins and neu­ro­sci­en­tist and con­cert pianist Dr. Móni­ca López-González—and lat­er by Pro­fes­sor David Cope, who taught a com­put­er to write music, and Bill Nye. Byrne makes his case for the equal val­ue of the arts and sci­ences with per­son­al exam­ples from his ear­ly years in grade school and art col­lege, and by build­ing con­cep­tu­al bridges between the two ways of think­ing. One theme he returns to is the inter­re­la­tion­ship between archi­tec­ture and music as an exam­ple of how art and engi­neer­ing co-evolve (a sub­ject on which he pre­vi­ous­ly deliv­ered a fas­ci­nat­ing TED talk).

You won’t find much debate here among the par­tic­i­pants. Every­one seems to read­i­ly agree with each oth­er, and I can’t say I’m sur­prised. Speak­ing anec­do­tal­ly, all of the sci­en­tists I know affirm the val­ue of the arts, and a high per­cent­age have a cre­ative avo­ca­tion. Like­wise, I’ve rarely met an artist who doesn’t val­ue sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy.  We find exam­ple after exam­ple of scientist-artists—from Albert Ein­stein to astro­physi­cist Stephon Alexan­der, who sees physics in Coltrane. The cen­tral ques­tion may not be whether artists and sci­en­tists can mutu­al­ly appre­ci­ate each other—they gen­er­al­ly already do—but whether school boards, politi­cians, vot­ers, and investors can see things their way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne: How Archi­tec­ture Helped Music Evolve

An Ani­mat­ed Neil deGrasse Tyson Gives an Elo­quent Defense of Sci­ence in 272 Words, the Same Length as The Get­tys­burg Address

The Secret Link Between Jazz and Physics: How Ein­stein & Coltrane Shared Impro­vi­sa­tion and Intu­ition in Com­mon

The Musi­cal Mind of Albert Ein­stein: Great Physi­cist, Ama­teur Vio­lin­ist and Devo­tee of Mozart

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Alan Drabke says:

    Just now there are some 17 mil­lion recent sci­ence and math col­lege grads unem­ployed and under­em­ployed by the evils of the H 1 B Visa. There is no short­age of young peo­ple want­i­ng sci­ence and math edu­ca­tions. What we have is a sur­plus of pseudoin­tel­lec­tu­als chang­ing things for the sake of chang­ing things.

  • Gerard Byrne says:

    Soci­ety needs trained car­pen­ters, plumbers, elec­tri­cians, first aid order­lies and brick­lay­ers. Their train­ing, prefer­ably in appren­tice­ships, should be in the form of sand­wich cours­es entail­ing three days prac­ti­cal and two days school­ing the­o­ry. If mod­ules of Arts sub­jects are includ­ed in their the­o­ret­i­cal stud­ies, so much the bet­ter for their prac­ti­cal imag­i­na­tion.

  • Ted Mills says:

    I lis­tened to the whole (audio only) pod­cast yes­ter­day dri­ving back from San­ta Clara. Lots more Tyson/Byrne in the episode!

  • Evan Hadkins says:

    I think

  • Evan says:

    I think the arts and sci­ences are both essen­tial. But I don’t think that the arts are nec­es­sar­i­ly cre­ative or that sci­ence isn’t. They are both ways of respond­ing to the world and com­mu­ni­cat­ing.

  • Nik says:

    We’ve missed the obvi­ous here. Art and sci­ence over­lap in cur­ricu­lum more than any oth­er two fields of study. The mix­ing of pig­ments to make paint, the chem­i­cal process in pho­tog­ra­phy and film devel­op­ment, the tech­nol­o­gy built by East­man Kodak… this is a near end­less list of where an artist’s job requires cours­es in chem­istry and maths. For any art major who attend­ed a lib­er­al arts col­lege for their under­grad, draw­ing the human form includ­ed a pre­req­ui­site course all biol­o­gy or pre-med stu­dents also take on mus­cle and bone anato­my. The study of “light”, is a class most attrib­uted to archi­tec­ture (light and shad­ing — how the human eye per­ceives the phys­i­cal world). The con­nec­tion is much stronger than “cre­ative think­ing”… the con­nec­tion is that they are both depen­dent on the oth­er in order to exist. (Note: a friend recent­ly con­fid­ed that her child was not great at math, and there­fore con­sid­ered an “arts edu­ca­tion path”. I don’t per­son­al­ly know any artists who have less than a com­pre­hen­sive grasp on math.)

  • Carl Kruse says:

    How the arts lost out in the cur­ricu­lum to begin with is a tragedy. STEAM all the way.

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