Notes from an Imagination Advocate, Part One

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Image by Jacob Bigelow (1786-1879)*

As regular readers of this blog know, most of my entries have to do with things going on in the world—with people in various sectors whose careers and actions embody imaginative practice. But it seems appropriate now and then to retreat from the hustle and bustle, exciting as it is, in order to reflect on some of the major issues facing imagination advocates like me and my colleagues at Lincoln Center Institute. One matter I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the educational discussion centering on the STEM fields.

“STEM,” for those who don’t know, refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the fields arguably responsible for the most impactful advances in society. In recent years, the United States government has demonstrated its desire to promote STEM education in public schools and in colleges and universities. This makes plenty of sense; as the STEM Education Coalition explains on its Web site, these fields play a “critical role … in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century.” Yet, with all of the enthusiasm for STEM, arts-in-education proponents sometimes wonder, “Well, where do we fit into this picture?”

Many arts-in-education spokespeople insist that the arts must be integrated into STEM to produce STEAM; cleverly, they remark that one can’t have a “stem” without a flower—that flower being the arts. Linguistic tricks aside, what they mean is that the arts enrich students’ minds in ways that nothing else can, and that even workers in non-arts disciplines will do their jobs better as a result of having been exposed in a meaningful way to the arts.

Despite the passion behind these claims, they often go unheeded. Not surprisingly, STEM supporters don’t usually focus their attention on the arts. But these same folks do value imagination, creativity, and innovation—after all, one of the main goals in the sciences is to make breakthroughs—and therein lies the possibility of connection between STEM and the arts. The world is moving from an industrial-based economy to one that is information- and concept-based and, within that, imagination and creativity are emerging as core values.

My own argument, one bolstered by the work of Lincoln Center Institute and like-minded organizations, as well as by compelling recent research, is that guided encounters with works of art (including hands-on art-making) develop students’ imaginative and creative thinking skills—skills that supplement STEM knowledge in crucial ways. “Supplement” is a key word here. I know few believers in arts-in-education who would challenge the primacy of STEM; most of us are simply interested in seeing these subjects taught better and STEM students receiving more well-rounded educations. This, to answer my own earlier question, is where the arts fit into the picture: they represent an engaging means of fostering the cognitive and affective capacities that make innovation possible.

At first glance, the STEM fields and the arts may seem to have little to do with each other. Professionally, some students will pursue the former, some the latter, and the sectors might remain forever separate. But I believe this thinking is fallacious. As I’ve suggested, the universal and timeless need for imagination, creativity, and innovation provides the unifying link between the two realms.

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*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image. From the collections of the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture.

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