Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about problems in regards to art education on National Geographic channel

IN a paper presented at the UNESCO Regional Expert Symposium on Arts Education in Asia back in 2004, Dr Janet Pillai, a senior lecturer for the School of Arts, University Sains Malaysia had some striking things to say regarding the state of the Malaysian education system.

In the paper, she states: “Official educational policy in Malaysia encourages a focus on 3Rs in primary education and places an extremely strong emphasis on science and technology in secondary education.

“As a result, school authorities, many parents and children have been indoctrinated to think of the sciences as superior and the arts as inferior”.

This problem isn’t unique to Malaysia, however, and prevails at higher education levels in many other countries of the world; including the United States of America.

The famous astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, makes mention of such problems in regards to art education in an interview with the National Geographic channel on their show StarTalk.

In the interview, he talks about how the funding for arts education is always under-stressed, calling attention to how school boards will often contemplate a decision of whether they should cut the arts to keep the sciences.

The verdict is clear from the interview — to view an education in the arts as a lower form of intellectual pursuit is incredibly baffling.

An education in the arts of any kind is at its core an exploration of the mind to train it to think creatively. In teaching the disciplines of science to students, often students are merely told of something and it is memorised and understood via the evidence presented.

However, science isn’t about merely accepting what is presented, the foundational basis in which science builds itself upon lies within the act of experimentation.

It is a creative endeavour in which a person asks a question that has to go outside of the box of what is commonly accepted. Science is not about knowing what is already found, it is about knowing what hasn’t been known yet. A person must be able to think creatively in response to the knowledge they acquire from the science that has been revealed before their time.

Thus, science and the arts live with each other as two components working together. For everything that is scientific, it is also artistic, and vice versa.

For example, we can think of music as an artistic expression of human emotion or we can think of it as a mathematical solution humans have devised to manipulate and arrange auditory frequencies into groups that can be used to then manipulate the human mind psychologically.

The truth is that science and the arts are to each other like the yin and yang; the concept that embodies an idea that what are seemingly opposite or contrary forces may be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in our world. In short, one half cannot exist without the other. To deny the arts is as much an act of denying the sciences.

Perhaps it is best to look at a moment in history to learn. Take, for example, the Renaissance, a period from the 14th to the 17th century. It was a turning point in European history that gave rise to many works of great art whether it be architectural, visual and literary. It was an important cultural movement that we in the 21st century still look back upon in awe.

People from around the world spend a lot of money to go visit museums that preserve these great works of art and travel all over Europe to appreciate these things.

The list of contributions he has made towards the sciences and arts are equally impressive and are both equally important to us today. DeGrasse Tyson also mentions briefly in his National Geographic interview that it should be unthinkable to cut away the arts to give favour to science when you look at the European Renaissance and consider that both art and science lived with each other in it.

A call to advocate for an education of the arts is a call to get students to think critically in the abstract. An important skillset that lends itself towards any career path the student may choose to pursue later in life. Say the student wants to become an entrepreneur, perhaps a knowledge of colour theory would help significantly in getting them to work with a graphic designer hand in hand towards creating a company logo.

A small degree of art education doesn’t necessarily mean that all students will suddenly grow up to become painters, it’s merely an education of one important aspect of all cultures; after all, there can be no culture without art to express it.

Every world culture is coloured by an identity that is portrayed through art. If the Italian Renaissance was coloured literary by the introduction of the Petrarchan sonnet as created by Francesco Petrarca, then for the Malays, there is the pantun, a poetic form unique to the Malay culture. In fact, often entire nations are identified by the art that comes from their people.

Therefore, we must ask the question; why does an education in the arts get looked down upon as inferior to others. Why is there a longstanding stereotypical joke about art students working at coffee shops after graduating?

Though it is easy to simply point a finger and blame a former generation that raised most of today’s college students; pointing towards their indulgence in getting their children to study in pursuit of mainstream career options such as those within a medical field is merely a cop-out answer.

Because if the argument is that career options aligned with the sciences are just more financially realistic and profitable then how come many people still willingly spend money to eat good food, watch movies at a cinema or play video-games.

The consumption of art is widespread. The very act of reading a newspaper, for example, is one such consumption. Evidently, there’s a slight hypocrisy in viewing the education of art as inferior to the science when so much of daily life is embedded in art.

I must again stress that this is not advocating for all students to study art and pursue artistically aligned career paths. It is merely an argument to draw attention to putting art as equally important to science in creating human beings that can think critically and creatively. Essentially, it is just another subject to hone a specific skillset that lends itself towards living everyday life: the very thing an education prepares a student for — living.

To study art is to study how to think creatively. And thinking creatively is an act that implores one to contemplate in search of an answer that isn’t as simple as the arithmetic equation of 2+2.

One may even say that thinking creatively within the context of art is to philosophise. And most classical philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Montaigne will say this about philosophising: “To philosophise is to learn how to die”.

Art isn’t about getting a definite answer, often it just poses a question for the consumer of art to ponder. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that we should spend a bit more time thinking about how to live a fulfilling life.

There is a speech by Charlie Chaplin at the end of the movie The Great Dictator with which — I’d like to close my argument for art education. Perhaps these words would be your artistic contemplation for the day, to give you something to think about in response to the arts. “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

Emillio Daniel is an adventurous English and Creative Writing student at The University of Iowa in the United States. Email him at education@nst.com.my.

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