A few months ago, President Obama, in speaking at a General Electric gas plant, said, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” While this comment only spoke to the monetary value of post-secondary education, it is in stark contrast to a commentary on education made by our second U.S. President, John Quincy Adams. Adams said, “I must study war and politics so that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy… in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, [and] architecture.” The educational vision of John Quincy Adams more than 200 years ago, compared to the reality of today’s market value of education and training expressed by Barrack Obama, gives us pause to ponder where we’ve come from and where we’re going with our educational system. Should we forget art history and advise all of our students to go into the trades; or is there a way to integrate knowledge and skills in order to produce productive, creative, and prosperous citizens?
The commonality between Presidents Obama and Adams is they perceive education and training as compartmentalized. Obama views the trades in one category and art history in another. Adams considered the study of war and politics separate from math and philosophy, and those subjects separate from art, music, and architecture. A recent trend in education has also compartmentalized science, technology, engineering, and math (referred to with the acronym, STEM) from the rest of the curriculum. The STEM disciplines are targeted for two reasons: 1) American students lag far behind the other industrial countries in math and science; and 2) there is a perceived shortage of jobs in these disciplines. I say “perceived” because the data doesn’t support this perception. I believe something is still missing here.
In my own research a number of years ago, I tested a hypothesis about the interconnection between creativity learned in arts disciplines and the ability for scientists to invent. I examined the backgrounds of approximately 80 scientists that made significant contributions through inventions in western civilization. This inquiry started with Leonardo da Vinci in the late Renaissance and went all the way up to the late twentieth century (the present time of the research). I found, with the exception of two inventors, every scientist that made life-changing contributions to western civilization had an arts background. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was as good of an artist as he was an inventor; and Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist as well as a scientific genius. My conclusion was that without creative problem-solving, such as the creative process developed through the arts, scientists are confined to analyzing the inventions of others.
The results from that research would be justification to change STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). There is greater value in holistic education in which we provide a well-rounded education that develops both the right (creative) side and the left (analytical) side of a child’s brain. There is no reason why our educational curriculum must exclude certain disciplines—or place lesser value on certain subjects.
The Automotive Collision Repair program at Morgan Community College offers an example of how the curriculum can be integrated. Auto body work is considered by many to be a hard-core trade. However, what the general public probably doesn’t know is that art classes (i.e., painting) are one of the requirements for students pursuing a degree in Collision Repair. Creative thinking is not just a talent, but a skill. Those that follow the accomplishments of MCC’s Collision Repair students know that this program repeatedly produces gold medal winners in national competitions — and in 2011, one of MCC’s Collision Repair students represented the United States in an international competition in London. Additionally, MCC’s own Collision Repair instructor, Tim Grauberger, is an accomplished artist — as is his oldest son, Roy, who went through the program and is now a professional top painter at a large auto body shop in Fort Collins. I could elaborate on numerous other examples of the multiple talents of MCC faculty and the interconnection of MCC program requirements, but that’s beyond the scope of this commentary.
We have the data from research on the benefits of holistic education and we have examples of best practices on integrating the curriculum. Instead of putting a market value on specific educational disciplines such as training in manufacturing and art history, maybe we should put a value on all education and demonstrate our value of education by supporting all components of education that lead to a prosperous society. Expanding STEM to STEAM would be a good first step.
Kerry Hart is President of Morgan Community College