"if you think about it, you might create it"
Wednesday evening brought Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to Aurora University, and since I have friends with the Dunham Fund, which sponsored the lecture and the STEM Partnership School that inspired it, I managed to grab a seat for an event which was booked to capacity less than a week after it was announced.
Despite enduring schoolyard antipathy to overtly intelligent young people, there is a trend of "rock star" scientists and professors coming to the fore these days. (I fall over myself for anything related to Brian Cox.) As I waited to have my picture taken with Dr. Tyson at the small preceding reception, I wondered how it came to be that an astrophysicist, perhaps the least accessible high-level scientist for the average person, is now such a celebrity.
I quickly remembered the answer to that question during his lecture. Tyson's sparkling charm and unbridled energy for his work could convince anyone to become a scientist. But beyond his trademark presentation, the magnitude of the science, history, and sociology he discussed reminds us of the importance of STEM education.
As an artist, I am occasionally disconcerted by the narrow manner in which STEM programs are promoted. It seems at times to be very shortsighted, as if these subjects are the only ones that matter, or the only vehicles for innovation -- which we know is untrue.
The merit of one pursuit does not diminish the merit of another. We can't fit every worthy cause into every acronym, and those like Yo-Yo Ma who add an A for arts -- "STEAM" -- may be a little short-sighted in the same way. Just because you support strong engineers doesn't mean you can't also support strong artists. After all, I'd be glad to hear that my physician has taken classes in poetry and music, so has it expanded her mind and increased her empathy, but I also want to know that she devoted several years solely to medicine. Arts and sciences function both together and separately, and debates that use one's importance to belittle the other's are missing the point entirely.
The last question after Tyson's lecture came from the mother of an 8-year-old boy. She wondered what we can do to discourage the practice of constant standardized testing in our schools. Tyson responded that he liked tests, and that you have to test somehow, or else how do you measure learning? The problem, he went on, is that testing does not exist to measure learning: it exists to create grades which we use to judge the merits of our students. We need not discourage testing -- only the disordered value system that says it is the only way to measure achievement.
I don't believe as an artist that STEM is more or less important than anything I do. To say that technological advancement should take a back seat to artistic production (or vice versa) is to neglect the interconnectedness of all human pursuits and achievements. The age of Newton was also the age of Bach! And if we're talking about what kind of culture we want to have, we need to stop saying that we want a culture of science or technology or art, and start saying that we want a culture of curiosity and intelligence and self-actualization, whatever forms those ideals may take.
While it is intimidating and humbling to do so, I have long known that the best way to expand your mind (and thereby improve your life) is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. I was nearly shivering with nervousness when I sat next to Dr. Tyson to introduce myself, but after we began speaking, I couldn't help but be moved -- and feel embraced -- by the fire of his enthusiasm for knowledge. He reminded me that that is in all of us, and that we must constantly and aggressively feed that fire, lest it dampens and darkens our minds forever.
One point (among many) stays with me now: Tyson discussed how, in the 1960s, space expeditions encouraged science-fiction thinking which stimulated people to actively conceptualize new visions of the future. The Future was on everyone's minds, whereas today's thinking -- with the immediacy of the technology and communications which we all utilize -- is fixed firmly on the Present. When we do not think to the Future, we have no chance of creating one we can enjoy, or even tolerate. "If you think about it, you might create it," Tyson said.
Here's to the thinkers and the creators, and to all those people with their eyes turned upward toward the sky: we lead the charge together. Let's make something beautiful. Let's astound ourselves with imagination.