Why the Arts (and the Imagination) Are the Future, Too

STEM is all the rage.

However, STEAM is where the future lies….

To truncate the education of students in the twenty-first century, a century that is likely to be quite tumultuous in its dislocations, its challenges, and its opportunities, is a problem.

Students do not need to be jammed into a STEM-only (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-centered) curriculum. Instead, students need to be encouraged to pursue a well-rounded education, one that stimulates cross-discipline conversations, the imagination, and critical thinking. In other words, policymakers, business leaders, and educational professionals need to encourage the creation of a STEAM-oriented (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) educational system. (However, I will note that the alphabet soup that comes with curricula these days should be avoided. For the purposes of simplicity, I am simply using STEAM as a foundation for a larger, more comprehensive educational platform proposal.)

STEM Logo by http://www.ncesd.org/

Most of us are familiar with the U.S. government’s push (and they’re not the only ones pushing) for STEM education. STEM education, although important for the twenty-first century, cannot forget about the arts and the imagination. Where would we be, as humans and conscientious world citizens, without the arts (and the imagination)? Without the arts and the imagination, we would still be languishing in dark caves and subsisting off the land as hunter-gatherers. The arts, and the imagination, give guidance, inspiration to, the technical-scientific side of human thinking and education. Moreover, the arts and the imagination allow humans to remove themselves from their skull-kingdoms (to use a rather interesting axiom created by David Foster Wallace). In other words, the arts, the imagination, allow one to escape from their own conditions, their own subjective realities, in order to explore what else, what-if, and so on. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics require a healthy and lively imagination to assist in tackling real-world and theoretical issues.

Imagination (and the arts) have inspired scientists, engineers, inventors, and mathematicians in their work. Consider this: imaginary (and creative) artwork played just as important a role in putting man on the moon in 1969 as those scientists and engineers who designed, built, and launched the very vessels that went into space and put human kind on the moon for the very first time.

A wonderful STEAM logo found on Pinterest

With numerous examples of the arts’ (and the imagination’s) impacts on the STEM fields and their endeavors, why, then, do we prioritize STEM over a STEAM-based approach. The answer, in some ways, comes down the economics. If we look at this prioritization, we see that government grants, programs, and initiatives, along with corporate sponsorship and guidance in these matters, the money is simply on the side of STEM-oriented education.

During times of national crisis, whether real, imagined, or existential in nature, STEM has always offered up a bulwark for American capitalism, a guarantor of the American way of life, and, more importantly, an arsenal that can be tapped into to push up American interests abroad. (If you don’t believe me, consider watching Eisenhower’s short video on the importance of science and U.S. national security — see below.)

This reliance on the scientific-technical educational fields is then understandable. However, many forget that the arts (and the imagination) have provided ways to ensure economic prosperity, guarantee the American way of life, and have even offer ways to spread (and protect) American interest abroad. However, something makes many authorities uncomfortable with the arts. Maybe it is the introspection (i.e., looking inward at one’s self, society, culture, etc. using a critical lens) that comes with the arts? Maybe it is the seemingly dangerous notion that the imagination is inherently inward, self-serving, and, if we’re completely honest, unable to be controlled — meaning, in the grand scheme of things, it is inherently untrustworthy, dangerous, and problematic.

STEM has dominated much of my life, and the lives of many Americans. However, the thinking is changing, ever-so-slowly, but it is changing. Education must be a well-rounded experience. It must provide students with the necessary tools to face the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century. Failing to offer an education that does exactly this, will only serve to put students at a severe disadvantage, with little or no hope of being able to adapt, survive, and thrive.

In New Mexico, a state that was recently ranked fiftieth in the nation in public education, the thinking is changing because the state knows residents won’t be able to compete in the twenty-first century if there isn’t a serious educational reform. New Mexico now requires all state-run colleges and universities to follow a new common course curriculum and numbering system, something that has been met with stiff resistance both from academics and institutions alike. Nevertheless, the new thinking highlights those content areas (what the state of New Mexico calls the Five Essential Skills) and component skills (subsets of New Mexico’s Five Essential Skills) that will ensure students are adaptive citizens and workers in the twenty-first century. Below, I have included a screenshot of the content areas (i.e., subject fields) and those three (of the five) Essential Skills they must cover, according to the state of New Mexico’s HED Website.

The interesting thing about New Mexico’s push with the Five Essential Skills is that STEM is not prioritized over the arts and the imagination. Instead, New Mexico is pushing for a more STEAM-oriented approach to education. This type of curriculum does not prioritize certain subject matters over others. What happens instead is the New Mexico educational system sees value of a more holistic approach to education. The imagination (and the arts) are integral to this educational reform pushed by the state of New Mexico. It is not the first and certainly not the last attempt to do so. Nevertheless, it does offer hope that students will be better prepared for tomorrow than they have been in previous cohorts.

When we think about the future, the arts and the imagination are integral to it as well. It was A. S. Eddington, who suggested in his 1920 book, Space Time and Gravitation: An Outline of General Relativity, that the imagination, particularly when it came to testing and understanding scientific laws and realities, couldn’t be underestimated for its value to science. The argument in question can be extended to other fields as well. The tools of speculative-fiction writing, too, can offer policymakers, scientists, engineers, and business leaders a toolkit from which to develop innovative reforms, push into deep theoretical regions of inquiry, and tackle the what-if, so-what, and what-else.

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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico