When the Florence city fathers looked in 1418 for a builder, to design and build an octagonal dome for the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, they awarded the contract to Filippo Brunelleschi — and started to pray.
The problem was, Brunelleschi was a goldsmith and had no engineering, no math, no construction experience. The other problem was, the dome had to cover a hole over the nave crossing spanning 150 feet. No one had ever attempted such monumental project since the Pantheon was built in 125 AD.
I thought about Brunelleschi and the builders of the pyramids and the Parthenon and the other ancient wonders of the world when I read the letter by the Bainbridge School Foundation’s board of directors promoting STEM education, today’s Holy Grail to education.
The letter asks for donations to pay for “fundamentals of education including STEM staffing and curriculum and professional development.”
Nothing wrong with that, however, what surprised me, was the repeated focus on the importance of STEM education. The letter state that “STEM problem solving skills go beyond the class room to all areas of life.” Yes, but so do the other “fundamentals of education”: thinking and analyzing, creativity, art, literature, music, philosophy, and history, to name my favorites.
Goethe wrote: “He who cannot draw on 3,000 years, is living from hand to mouth.” These 3,000 years give us a good reservoir of fundamental knowledge and values that nourishes our thinking and creativity, a pre-requisite for the studies of STEM or any specialized education. The French existential philosopher called this reservoir our essence.
The great scientist Einstein, a violinist and pianist in his spare time, believed that “the development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost; not the acquisition of specialized knowledge.”
Thomas A. Edison seems to agree. He wrote: “to invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” That’s exactly what Karl Benz had when he assembled his first Mercedes Benz car; an old horse carriage and an idea.
Many (most?) people live happily and successfully without having had a STEM education. I did and survived and thrived by applying lessons I learned from poking into 3,000 years of history. These were my problem solving tools for “all areas of life.”
With no engineering or construction experience and a poor math background, I built three houses and owned and operated a business for 15 years Brunelleschi had no STEM education neither did millions of inventors of the past; but they were creative thinkers and tinkerers. Their creativity was their tool box.
The ultimate techno geek Steven Jobs stated that “producing technology requires intuition and creativity.” And Alexander Bell wrote that “all big discoveries are the result of thought.”
The school board letter writers deserve credit for also mentioning the importance of “a well rounded education.” However, I wonder what is a well-rounded education at today’s high schools that “goes beyond the class room to all areas of life.” I hope it includes those 3,000 years.
Whenever he had a chance, Einstein expressed again and again that creativity precedes knowledge: “Imagination is more important than knowledge because knowledge is limited and imagination encircles the world,” he wrote. Sorry, STEM.
If indeed curiosity and imagination are more important than knowledge — and who wants to argue with Einstein — why do so many politicians focus so exclusively on measurable output from our students and quantifiable results from our schools? How does one measure what really makes us tick? How does one measure creativity and imagination?
John Adams too placed creativity highest on the scale of education. He wrote to his wife that he had to “study politics and war so that his sons could study math and philosophy, so that their children could study paintings, poetry and music.”
I do not want to bring up the heavy artillery, but, remember Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”? When Gregor Samsa, woke up one morning he found himself transformed into a giant beetle. He was punished because he never cultivated his essence. He was punished for neglecting the specific gift of art and music granted him.
The focus of education has always been a combination of “drawing on 3,000 years” and a contemporary job related curriculum. However, to focus on one at the expense of the other is to cripple the students’ future.
James U. Behrend is a retired history and art history teacher.