Bring on the dancing scientists.

Most of the people who I know are involved in the education system at any professional level believe that it is in some trouble. Clearly the Guardian is struggling too, as it’s now publishing articles on education written by sixteen year-olds. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to the views of teenagers on education; in fact, we don’t really consider their true needs nearly enough. Perhaps though, they should be briefly challenged and encouraged to produce a nuanced edit before being published in a national newspaper.

I offer as evidence the sentence: “…Maybe it’s no surprise that this stigma exists: we’re in a society that is obsessed with living for the future.”  Well, yes. As we race towards extinction due to climate change, famine, war and the other horsemen of the apocalypse, we absolutely should be living for the future.

The article in question is by a lady called Orli Vogt-Vincent and, in her defence; it is, the odd phrase aside, a thoughtful and lucid piece about being forced into choices by her school and the fact that her option to take up dance is considered less valuable than science.

As a champion of STEM education, you might expect me to offer some rebuttal. I do not. I think that she’s quite right in many respects – the current administration does devalue the arts, does not encourage the study of subjects like philosophy which are the very underpinnings of civilised thought and is obsessed with shoving kids into academic qualifications in maths and science for which few are suited.

My problem with the article rests with the Guardian’s decision to publish it with no debate or discussion. Fair enough to not allow comments, I would not wish to subject any minor to the bile spewed in even the most respectable papers’ comment threads. But this article, which I assume will be read by a fair number of the nation’s more sensitive and enquiring youth, simply adds to weight to the idea that the arts and science are in some way adversarial.

My guess would be that Ms Vogt-Vincent probably has some great dance teachers and at the same time she has not been inspired by science. This is probably the case in many schools. I wholeheartedly encourage Orli to throw herself into dance and to get the most out of it. I would, however, urge her to apply the same iron discipline that a great dancer requires to her studies in science because there are issues around climate change, energy security, health, food, resource management and countless other areas that will require her to make decisions about her spending, her democratic choices and other vitally important areas of, yes, her future. Only a good quality science education will give her the foundation to understand those issues clearly.

So my problem with the way that The Guardian has chosen to present his piece is this: it is unhelpful. All the paper has done is pitted two areas of education against each other when they should be championed together.

The great failure of the current administration and of many authoritative voices in education is that students’ subject choices are simply seen as a pathway to qualifications and hence careers. This article is making the same mistake.

First and foremost, education should be equipping students to make good choices that steer them to a life of happiness, fulfilment and enable them to make a contribution to society. Not to turn them into career-obsessed wage slaves who will do anything they’re told if it will help them reach the next promotion.

This thing is, at present, it’s easy to study technical subjects and still enjoy the arts on a purely participative basis – no qualification required. A neurosurgeon may play piano in a jazz quartet but we (rightly) discourage professional musicians from dabbling in brain surgery.

We need an academic pathway that engages intelligent students deeply in the important issues of science so that their lifestyle and political decisions can be made on a sound basis without shackling them with the pressure of a qualification, enabling them to throw themselves into other subject areas if that is where their passion lies. A pathway that enables the dancer or the artist to have a road to Damascus moment, perhaps, and suddenly, at the age of sixteen, develop a love of organic chemistry. Or, equally, not.

The obsession with STEM education has come from a good place, Orli, I hope that you realise this. The planet is in a bad way and at the moment, we don’t have the engineers, the scientists and the doctors to fix it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need dancers and artists and musicians too – I’m an engineer turned educator and still the thing I’m most glad I learned is to play the guitar. The pressure you’re under to study physics rather than physical theatre is born of the panic felt by those looking over the parapet and seeing the approaching shadow. The message, though, has got lost in the obsession with economic progress at all costs because those technically-educated alumni, you see, also make a better regular return for their paymasters.

But for the Guardian – shame on you. You’re supposed to be looking deeper, doing some journalism and encouraging your readers to think more deeply about an issue, not to take a side in a knee-jerk debate that will ultimately leave the dancers and the physicists equally impoverished.

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