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Why The Sciences Need the Arts

I receive about 10 to 15 articles a week about the place of the sciences in the curriculum and the problems we have producing scientists in America. As a rule, the solutions offered range from talking more loudly about science to offering more science classes to younger students.

I believe these suggestions are misguided, though often well-intentioned. It is common, when you want more of something, to ask for more of it. But that doesn’t mean it always, or even often, works. For example, I can ask my garden to grow more tomatoes till the cows come home, and I can plant seeds that spill from the garden plot to make them grow, but if I plant them in clay I won’t get many tomatoes.

Our schools are run by a scientistic mindset in which the planners and administrators look to (usually manipulated) analysis to justify every decision. They do this because they do not understand that nature of the enterprise they seek to administer.

They don’t understand what a child is, how people learn (hint: the learning styles are not a big deal in a rightly taught classroom), or even what people can learn (second hint: truth is knowable). And in particular, they don’t understand how to equip people for the sciences.

Final hint: you don’t train people for the sciences by teaching them more science before they can learn it.

What too many administrators are missing is that all learning is an art, even when you are learning the sciences. Therefore, teachers are artists, not scientists, when they teach. But we tend to hire scientifically inclined people to teach the sciences. But teaching is an art.

Art classes get this. They are taught artistically because art teachers are temperamentally artistic. Usually, they know the need for discipline, for patient practice, for repetitive activities that don’t end with themselves, but are necessary to produce the artifact.

When the artifact is a work of art we recognize the art needed to produce it. But when the artifact is knowledge, we more easily forget that a whole sophisticated collection of arts were needed to produce it.

Practically, where I’m going with this is that if we want more scientists, we should stop trying to teach so much science in the lower grades and instead teach students the arts of learning. I mean the seven liberal arts (not the meaningless quasi-liberal arts of the conventional misnamed liberal arts college). Teach students the arts of inquiry and those so inclined will become great scientists.

Those arts include the four arts of the quadrivium (the mathematical arts).

As it is, we try to teach science to third grade students by demanding that they read boring books about science that don’t even teach reading well because they pre-digest the reading for the students. That isn’t science. It’s just a very bad reading class.

So what to do to train young scientists:

1. Teach them the seven liberal arts

2. Let them inquire and explore the natural realm (garden, woods, farm, zoos, etc. etc.)

3. Teach them stories about great scientists and their discoveries

4. Teach them some categorized knowledge about things they are exploring.

Once they’ve done that for a few years, they’ll be able to do real science real well.

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