Saturday, January 14, 2017

[Yasmin_discussions] History

Dear All,

Amy Ione's note got me thinking about several issues.

The first seems to have a clear answer. Amy wrote, "I don't think discussing educational perspectives per se is the problem, so much as the level of discourse often seems more about advocacy than substance. I am also amazed that many STEAM advocates seem unaware of historical discussions from era to era that mirror the STEM to STEAM discussions."

There are two useful historical discussions. The first involves the occasional STEM to STEAM discussions that make the rounds in educational communities. These also appear in another guise — the call for everyone to study art as something essential to civilization. Art advocates can always find a reason to lobby for art. That's the case for advocates of any general good.

It's not that art is bad or undeserving — one can say the same of music, dance, theater, gymnastics, sports, literature, creative writing … the list goes on. The issues for — and against — any such choice involve a range of questions. How much room do we have in the curriculum at any level for one subject or another? Are these subjects genuinely required for a well rounded education? Do these subjects genuinely add value of some kind? If so, what kind of value does it add? Are we making an instrumental argument — for example, art is vital for creativity in a world of creative cities, creative industries, and so on? Or are we saying that art serves some other, and deeper, purpose using the same kind of argument that we can muster for philosophy, history, or even for religious studies?

It is easy both to overestimate and to underestimate art forms, genres within those forms, and individual artists. For example, I've always had a taste for Westerns. Perhaps it is because I lived for two decades in the American west, driving north to south and east to west many times. Or perhaps it is because I was born in New England, and remember that there was once a time when the west meant land west of the Hudson river — Last of the Mohicans was one of the first great Westerns, and the many movie versions of James Fenimore Cooper's novel each tell a different story about time and history. I've always enjoyed Clint Eastwood's westerns. Not the Sergio Leone westerns, but Eastwood's own productions: High Plains Drifter, Hang 'Em High, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and others. Nearly no one agreed with me on Clint Eastwood's virtues as an artist until Eastwood released Unforgiven. Following Unforgiven and his first Oscar there came a reconsideration of the entire genre. Many more Oscars followed, for Eastwood, his films, and the actors in his films. With this came a new look at Eastwood — and a reconsideration of Eastwood's early westerns. In the wake of Unforgiven (and the slightly earlier Dances with Wolves), the genre underwent a rebirth.

In my view, the serious works of the Western genre are the North American equivalent of Aeschylus and Sophocles. If you want to argue that great Westerns are the exception, I'll agree. There were hundreds upon hundreds of tragedies entered into the great festivals of classical Greece. Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90 plays, winning the first prize in the annual festival at Athens a dozen or so times. Sophocles wrote even more plays, winning first prize 18 times. When you consider that two great play writes won the prize more than 30 times, this means thirty years in which dozens of other authors competed and lost. So even great Greek tragedies are the exception again ordinary tragedies. Some of those now-forgotten tragedies must be excellent in the same way that excellent actors such as Glenn Ford with outstanding performance in such Westerns as Jubal, the original 3:10 to Yuma, or Cowboy have always been overlooked in favor of the better-known John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda. The solid but predictable performances that Wayne delivered in dozens of movies, and Wayne's long string of B-movie horse operas, cast a shadow over the genre. They even cast a shadow over Wayne himself, to the degree that many people forget his occasional brilliant performances, such as Wayne's final movie, The Shootist, directed by Don Siegel.

This is a tale with a point: I'm saying that you'd have to know a great deal more about the depth of these issues to argue the case for any genre — or for art in general. And don't get me started on Aeschylus or Sophocles. There is scarcely anything in the modern repertoire that can be measured against the surviving works of the two great tragedians.

So what is it that STEAM can bring to STEM?

Then there is the other history that we ought to consider. This is the history of science, including any of the scientific fields or such STEM fields as mathematics. Consider, for example Reuben Hersh's book, What is Mathematics, Really? I've nearly never seen any writing on art that tells as rich a story of human creativity or the growth of civilization. It seems to me easily possible to compare Hersh against, say, Clement Greenberg, to argue that Greenberg is justifying his own taste with prose that still reads well while his value judgements look dated.

The history and philosophy of science tell dozens of stories that do not require STEAM for the creativity to be visible. Cases in point: Abraham Pais's biography of Albert Einstein titled Subtle is the Lord, or Owen Gingerich's hunt for the surviving copies of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus.

On the one hand, I, too, am an advocate of art, sort of. I say "sort of" to suggest that STEAM needs a little humility. And STEAM advocates generally need to know a great deal more about the STEM — this involves a great deal more than demanding that physicists and engineers pay attention to art.

Amy also asked an interesting question: "In terms of art, if someone does an artwork based on a scientific idea that proves wrong does that change the value of the art? I've also been wondering if and where artists who are not inclined to include science in their art fit in the educational pedagogy the STEAM agenda promotes?"

Off-hand, I don't have an answer, but this is an interesting question to consider another time.

Warm wishes,


Ken Friedman, PhD, DSc (hc), FDRS | Editor-in-Chief | 设计 She Ji. The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation | Published by Tongji University in Cooperation with Elsevier | URL:

Chair Professor of Design Innovation Studies | College of Design and Innovation | Tongji University | Shanghai, China ||| University Distinguished Professor | Centre for Design Innovation | Swinburne University of Technology | Melbourne, Australia

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