I was involved in a discussion in a newsgroup the other day, that started with someone making the assertion that Republicans hate science. Aside from the utter vapidity of such a remark, what interested me was a one point in the discussion that followed.
Not, for example, the point that roughly one out of three Democrats believe we are being watched by aliens from space, nor that Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to believe in astrology and the healing power of crystals. The point that interested me was one of the participant’s claim that all of mankind’s great achievements were due to science.
And that got me thinking about the nature of society today, and its effects on education. We have, as a society, decided that education dollars are better spent encouraging and providing for STEM education. That is, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. We have magnet schools dedicated to it. We have politicians pontificating and demanding more of it. We have the educational infrastructure lecturing us about the job prospects for our children’s future. And after a great deal of thought, I have come to the conclusion that they’re wrong. At least, in part.
First, let me say I’m no luddite. I write this on a MacBook Pro, and I take calls on my iPhone, sometimes while watching my 42 inch HDTV. And I benefit from technology in many other ways, all of which I am very grateful for. But technology is the smallest part of our shared and basic humanity. There are tribes in South America and Africa with no technology beyond building huts out of wattle and thatch, yet they are no less human than we.
Science has been consistently wrong throughout its history. The list of scientific failures is staggeringly long. And it continues its path of wrongness today. The things I was taught in high school about the fundamental structure of atoms? Wrong. Einstein? Lots of people believe him wrong on a subject or two. Newton? Wrong. Medicine? More wrong than right through the ages.
Now let us consider a field where nothing has been wrong. Ever. Some may have been better and some worse, but none has been wrong. Not only has nothing ever been wrong in this field, but it is the only universal medium through which every human being, past, present, and future, has and can communicate.
Art. Whether music, literature, visual, like painting or sculpture, art is what all humans have in common Every culture, in every time, in every place, has used art as a fundamental tool. From the caves at Lascaux to the Prado, from the drums of the Congo to Mozart, and from earliest totems of the Paleolithic peoples to the Rodin, art is the lingua franca of the human race. Art is not only that which unites us as common creatures, it is the very thing that makes life worth living. It serves no useful purpose, yet is indispensible to our psyches. A world without art is a world without humanity.
Man’s greatest achievements have not been in the sciences, but in art. Everyone on a crowded subway car is thankful for Jospeh Lister, even if they can’t identify him, but no one is moved to tears by his work. But even those who can’t name the artist stand twenty deep for hours to look at the Mona Lisa. Technology gave the fascists in Spain machine guns, but art gave us Guernica.
In a world where students believe that morality is a set of culturally derived norms, and “nothing is right or wrong but thinking makes it so,” it is ever more urgent that we treat art as an antidote to dehumanizing technology. Our children, and a good number of adults, need more education in the humanities, especially since the goal of education is to produce better humans, not better job applicants.
Ars longa, vita brevis.