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Pleasure, Beauty, and Wonder

By John M. Eger — March 30, 2009 4 min read
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T.S. Eliot, in his poem “The Rock,” asks rhetorically: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

He could not have imagined how we have increased the world’s database of information. According to some reports, the store of facts and data has been doubling almost every year since the turn of the 20th century. Today, given the proliferation of the Internet, the computerization of news archives, and libraries available on the World Wide Web, literally thousands of references are available at the click of a mouse. The challenge today is not acquiring information, it is determining which information is relevant.

Addressing an education conference in late 2006, Dana Gioia, then the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said that we need “a system that grounds all students in pleasure, beauty, and wonder.” He added: “If we are going to compete productively with the rest of the world, it’s going to be in terms of creativity and innovation.”

Knowing what education should be doing in an age in which people are likely to have more than 10 jobs by age 42, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, has greatly complicated matters. Further exacerbating the situation is the projection that the top 10 jobs that will be in demand for today’s students don’t yet exist, and will be using technologies that haven’t been invented to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

Clearly, we are headed into a new and uncertain future.

In 2007, the federal America COMPETES Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush, authorizing $151.2 million to help college students earn bachelor’s degrees in math or science with concurrent teacher certification, $125 million to help teachers earn master’s degrees in these areas, and additional funding to create more educational programs at the K-12 level to align math and science curricula in students’ preparation for college.

In truth, we need a huge infusion of capital and a change in attitude not only for mathematics and science, but also for art and music. Importantly, we need to define a well-rounded education and make the case for its importance in a global, innovation-based economy. The evidence for such an effort is slowly mounting.

Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of physiology and a winner of the MacArthur prize, completed a study of 150 eminent scientists from Pasteur to Einstein. His findings were startling to those educators lobbying for more emphasis on the sciences, for he discovered that nearly all of the great inventors and scientists were also musicians, artists, writers, or poets. Galileo, for example, was a poet and literary critic. Einstein was a passionate student of the violin. And Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and father of telecommunications, was a portrait painter.

Perhaps as a consequence of the Harvard University scholar Howard Gardner’s pioneering research on “multiple intelligences” and the idea that all children learn differently, various practical applications are evident throughout the country.

Six years ago, the Los Angeles County board of supervisors adopted “Arts for All,” a regional blueprint for arts education. The program’s vision is for every public school student in the county to receive an effective K-12 education, of which the arts are an important component.

High Tech High in San Diego is another remarkable example of art infusion, indeed infusion of all the various disciplines. HTH is a charter school network that is well funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the family of Gary Jacobs (formerly of Qualcomm), and many San Diego businesses. It consists of eight schools: five high schools, two middle schools, and one elementary school, with a total of 2,500 students and 300 employees. A hundred percent of graduates have been admitted to college, 80 percent to four-year institutions of higher learning.

High Tech High is unusual in that its staff members create “personalized, project-based learning environments where all students are known well and challenged to meet high expectations.” There is no math class or art. Rather, those disciplines—still taught, still relevant—are curriculum-infused, integrated if you will, into the study of larger questions such as these: How does the world work? Who lives here? Why do things matter? Each semester, the entire faculty and student body are assigned a topic they will work on together and that draws on all the disciplines, thereby forcing students to work collaboratively on real-world dilemmas. Larry Rosenstock, High Tech High’s chief executive officer, quotes Sir Ken Robinson, an international expert in the field of creativity and innovation, when he says, “Creativity is as important as literacy and should be given equal status.”

Maybe we really need to go back to basics and ask what the purpose of public education is, and what we consider an educated person to be. Perhaps we should change the vocabulary of the educational establishment, alter the lenses in the camera, and in the process awaken to the competitive demands of this new age.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2009 edition of Education Week as Pleasure, Beauty, and Wonder

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