The Art (or the science) of Perfect Balance

By Ashleigh Coleman. Ashleigh is a 32 year old mother and writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Split: separation of artist and scientist

My proudest memory of primary school was the day the headmaster came to our classroom to read the class a story that I had written. He particularly liked my use of the words ‘murky’ and ‘blushed’; interesting vocabulary makes good stories, he said. If he’d been more familiar with the classics of children’s literature, he might have instead taken me to task for my thinly-veiled plagiarism of The Box of Delights and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, right down to the characters’ names, as well as the interesting vocabulary.

I was 11 then, and that was probably the last time the ‘creative arts’ were valued for their own sake as part of my formal education (which is a shame, since after that I became much better at not plagiarising stuff).

In the early stages of secondary school, there was still time for the odd piece of creative writing in English class, as well as a couple of lessons of art and music each week. But as the years passed, access to these creative subjects became increasingly restricted – curriculum space reserved for those who demonstrated a natural aptitude in the subject. For the rest of us, their status was reduced to non-essential, extra-curricular hobbies.

Fortunately, the ‘academic arts’ were still available and I filled my timetable and myself with English literature, history and foreign languages. If producing my own creative output was no longer to feature in my schooling, at least I could study other people’s offerings. For me, the arts didn’t play a part in my education – the arts were my education. Until one day, they weren’t quite enough any more. Anna Karenina, Don Quixote, King Lear and all those pigs from Animal Farm had turned me into quite the amateur psychologist. Enchanted by the subtexts, motivations, dilemmas and relationships simmering under the surface of our lives, I decided I needed to take this further. I was going to be a psychologist! And I would have to study science!

So I bought books and went to college. I learned about brains and nervous systems and how to specify a hypothesis and control for variables and to never ever confuse correlation with causation. It was a short-lived affair. It wasn’t that I didn’t find it interesting or useful – it was both; but it was also a bit…clinical…cold…robotic.

I couldn’t quite understand how such a fine scholar of the human condition as I could fail to be captivated and enthralled by my chosen vocation. I was equally baffled as to how a course promising to turn this amateur into a professional psychologist could reduce me to conducting inane ‘experiments’ to establish that there is no correlation whatsoever between a person’s IQ and the colour of their hair.

So I went home – literally, as soon as the class was finished – and figuratively, I went back to my beloved books.

It wasn’t long before I decided to give science a second chance – the birth of my daughter kindled an interest in midwifery. I bought loads of books, I skipped out of courses bursting with facts and excitement about hormones and cervixes, and although there’s no professional name-badge in sight just yet, at least science and I are getting on like a house on fire.

Why is it different this time? I’m making sure that science stays firmly in its place. There’s no doubt that without science my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the world would be poorer, but it’s only part of the story. I’m not going to be fooled into thinking science has all the answers.

Science gets too big for its boots

It’s a trap that I fell into before, and that I see around me all the time. Awed by the impressive inventions, discoveries and capabilities of science, we have elevated its status far above all the other ways of looking at and engaging with the world. Observation, reasoning and evidence carry far more weight in educational, political, and business spheres than subconscious, reflection and imagination.

If something is ‘scientifically proven’, it is fact – unassailable truth. Measurements and methodologies have infiltrated even the most unlikely workplaces. As a support worker, my clients and I had to complete assessments every few weeks to ‘measure progress’ and provide ‘evidence’. A scientific approach to homelessness, addiction and mental health, to be sure; and one that yielded plenty of ‘evidence’, but not much by way of actual changes to people’s lives.

It’s as if the only thing we can believe in is a number on a piece of paper. So we find things – any things – to measure, seeking to apply order and consistency to all the messy ups and downs of human existence, even if it means that the ‘results’ fall woefully short of capturing our true experience.

Take love – the cornerstone of humanity. Science can tell us about hormones and heart rates and biochemical reactions, but that’s barely a proxy of a proxy. And when the day comes when some clever person invents a machine to measure real love, will it be able to differentiate between the familiar, reassuring love I feel for my parents; the in-it-together life-sharing soul-merging ‘my turn to get up with the kids’ love I feel for my partner; and the ‘when I look at you, I can see the beginning of the world and the end of time and I feel lucky and small and scared and invincible’ love I feel for my children?

No. For this, we need music, poetry, dancing, contradictions, oxymorons, humour, emotions, art.

While science can carbon date me a fossil or send me up in an aeroplane, the arts can transport me to times and places I never even knew existed (and some, like Hogwarts, that sadly, don’t). The arts world is the only place where the limits of the world we live in don’t apply, which makes it the only place where it is possible to overcome our world’s problems and build a better future.

Our Future Hangs in the Balance

This is why we need to restore their arts to their rightful place as equal to the sciences, and this must include space for the creative arts as well as the academic arts. We badly need to recognise that, in the scientific realm, our thinking, understanding and ultimately our progress are limited by what our tools are capable of measuring.

Far from being frivolous or extra-curricular, the purpose of the arts and its role in steering the course of humanity is one of the greatest importance. In some areas, our scientific capabilities have far exceeded our wildest dreams;  stem cells, genetic engineering, nuclear energy – we have raced ahead in pushing the boundaries of what we can do, without stopping to give proper consideration to what we should do. In other areas, in spite of (or perhaps because of?) our billions of dollars and whizziest of gadgetry, the problems of our world remain stubbornly unsolved – climate change; wars; global nutrition; the explosion of chronic non-communicable diseases. But if science’s heavyweight heroes of medicine, engineering and technology haven’t been able to fix these things, can a bit of poetry and painting really save the world?

Of course not. Not by themselves anyway. But in the face of a challenge, no heart is as much of a problem as no brain. It’s not a case of either/or – we need both. Observation and reasoning don’t have to come at the expense of reflection and imagination. Could something not be ‘scientifically proven’ but also open to question from other disciplines?

In Cabinet Rooms and Ethics Committee Rooms and boardrooms and health trusts, couldn’t we free up some seats or pull more chairs around the table to make way for a few artists in the mix? Scientific expertise could be supported and taken in new directions by those with the freedom to play, to explore ideas and to not be bound by the constraints of the discipline.

And in our classrooms, what if we decided to stop dividing these things into different subjects at all? If instead of studying mathematics and chemistry and English and history, we could explore climate change; conflict resolution; love. What if students were to read Never Let Me Go as part of their education on biology, medicine and genetic engineering; or if the Hunger Games trilogy featured on the same reading list as economics handbooks? To lighten the mood, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden could be introduced to lessons on nuclear technologies. Imagine the change that would arise in classroom discussions. Imagine the students who would be able to integrate and apply both creative and scientific aspects of themselves to the same issues. Imagine the potential that could be harnessed to provide intellect and feeling; focus and perspective; machines and magic, and apply them to the challenges facing humanity. Imagine the difference that that would make to tomorrow’s world.

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