Last week brought the news that AQA will not be developing a new Art History course for 2017; the final exam board to drop the ‘soft’ A Level subject. In its wake the voices of educators, artists and journalists are heard to mourn its loss in articles, blogposts and tweets – but, perhaps not unexpectedly, the scientific community remains largely silent. Arts and humanities subjects are undervalued by the current government for being less ‘rigorous and demanding’ then maths and the hard sciences, however these more scientific fields have much to gain from their ‘softer’ counterparts and more to lose from their demise.
Teaching arts and humanities subjects in schools is invaluable in itself. Understanding a world where we are increasingly bombarded with imagery is essential, as is understanding our cultural history through it. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that jobs requiring creative skills are less likely to be automated. However, the need for creativity in young scientific minds is often vastly overlooked.
The state of our current science curriculum emphasises the learning of facts and concepts, allowing children to understand the vastness of our solar system and the minute universes of cells and bacteria. Very little emphasis is placed upon discovering novel ways to explore these concepts or put them together to add to scientific knowledge. Many school children have no idea that a career in science is based on discovery, rather than the recitation of facts.
I am not suggesting that traditional classroom experiments should be discarded at the expense of a less defined approach (no one is suggesting children should be encouraged to be ‘creative’ with the alkali metals), but learning these subjects alongside the arts provides an invaluable set of skills. Art teaches collaboration, a questioning approach to canonical concepts, and perhaps most importantly perseverance in the face of failure. Creativity is not a mysterious and innate talent like the heavily debunked left/right brain myth would have you believe. Like any skill it must be practiced and pushed.
Speaking as someone moving towards a career as a Cognitive Neuroscientist, I use the skills I learnt in my art classes at high school and in my university art major, where experimentation was not only encouraged but rewarded, every day. I’m comfortable taking risks in order to think about scientific concepts in new ways. Perhaps at the despair of my supervisors, I question absolutely everything. I know these skills make me a good scientist; practicing art subjects and critically learning about their historical contexts breeds good scientists. Perhaps it is too late for the Art History A Level, but scientific educators do have the responsibility to speak up for the value of these subjects or else we will find ourselves stifling the very skills needed to take on humanities most critical questions, such as our reliance on fossil fuels, the nature of consciousness and how we could live as new communities on Mars.