The Course of Reason

Arts and Sciences are Vital to Education

December 2, 2011

Yesterday I watched an interview between Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Colbert has said that Dr. Tyson was one of his favorite guests on The Colbert Report, and the interaction between the two is always delightful for the audience. So it was particularly cool to see Stephen just being himself for this interview, and always cool to see Neil being very animated and excited when talking about science. If you have a moment, you should definitely give it a watch if you haven’t already. It’s available for viewing at Dr. Tyson’s blog at the Hayden Planetarium website.


There were numerous points that Neil brought up that had me thinking, but one quote in particular stood out for me and I briefly wrote about it on one of my social networks. I wanted to take the opportunity to flesh out my thoughts further on the subject. In the dialogue, Neil said this concerning education and people considered smart:

Our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff, and generally we call those people smart. But at the end of the day, who do you want: the person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person that can rattle off a bunch of facts?

Norman Rockwell

My mother was a schoolteacher in elementary education, and so I have a pretty solid familiarity of what life is for a teacher. Being a teacher is hard work. I mean really really hard work. The work hours aren’t just restricted to the hours between 7:00 am and 3:00 pm. They continue long after the students, and the teachers, have gone home for the day. For students it’s obvious: watch cartoons after class and then pretend to do homework for an hour before dinner. For teachers, at least in my experience, homework consists of grading papers, creating lesson plans, reading resource materials, worrying about students, and in more recent years, stressing out about parents yelling and complaining that teachers aren’t working hard enough so that their little darling snowflake can pass fifth grade.

To make matters worse for teachers, funding for public education gets cut year after year, and so teachers are forced to do more with fewer resources. When I was in elementary school, there were around 18 to 22 students in a classroom. Now there can be as many as 40 in a classroom, which means teachers are now doing the work of two teachers, yet only getting paid for the work of three-quarters of a teacher (or in professional athlete salaries, 1.5% of a football player). In addition to annual budget cuts, teachers are also expected to conduct standardized testing so that the students can be rated on an arbitrary scale of skill in various areas. It’s an unbalanced way of truly assessing a child’s unique abilities. Albert Einstein spoke about this saying, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

My mother worked hard to try and unlock the problem-solving potential in each and every one of her students. I worked hard as well toward the same goal when I taught in the computer lab for a year at the school where she worked. It was important that the kids would be able to move on to the next grade with the problem-solving skills they needed to succeed in school and in life. We wanted the kids to be more than just “fact-rattling machines,” because rote memorization isn’t a proper education. A proper education is being able to analyze an unfamiliar situation and actually possess the necessary skills to tackle it and find a solution. Some of the tools educators have used to teach these skills are arts and sciences. The arts are usually at the top of the list for budget cuts, and with an increase in religious fanaticism in this country, the sciences are being attacked as well.

Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man”

Science funding is getting cut. Arts funding is getting cut. Entire education budgets are diminishing across the nation. Meanwhile, defense funding skyrockets as if the United States were mobilizing for armageddon itself. Considering the number of belligerent, fervently religious, and alarmingly apocalyptic-minded politicians running for office and currently serving in office, the idea of mobilizing for armageddon doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as we’d like it to be. Many in the United States are even praying for the end of the world in the deluded hope that total annihilation will somehow usher in a new era of peace. They are correct to a certain extent. Total destruction will bring peace, but there will be no one left alive to enjoy it.

It is many people’s relentless grip on an imaginary “Golden Age” of the past that prevents the rest of us from being able to move forward with hope and optimism into the future. It’s a fear of the unknown and a comfort in the familiar and the mundane that keep us in the dark. Education was supposed to prepare the youth of the United States so that they could take the reins when the time came. But with public education so sadly underfunded and teachers so drastically overworked, it’s the students who suffer, and ultimately the whole country as well. Arts and sciences are vital to education because they teach creative problem solving. They teach kids a way to look at our world with a critical eye and seek ways to make it better, not by looking to the past, but by looking to the future.

This post originally appeared on the blog Skeptic Freethought

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About the Author: Astrid Lydia Johannsen

Astrid Lydia Johannsen's photo
"I graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies with extra focus on Greco-Roman history and culture. I've always wanted to try and understand why people are religious. I've questioned religion since I was a child, but it wasn't until I attended university that I finally came out as an atheist. It was my doubt about religion which inspired me to study it in greater detail."




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