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Science Commentary

That’s Science. That’s Art.

By Jessica Hoffmann Davis — October 11, 2000 6 min read
The way in which we create a schema to describe developing behaviors and abilities, that’s science. The way in which we see beyond the schemas, that’s art.

‘Piaget!” the older of my two nephews offered as I tried to explain what it is that I do as a cognitive developmental psychologist. “Didn’t Piaget do that stuff with clay on how children learn?” Comparing Piagetian stages to Plato’s ladder, I shared with my nephews an observation that I have often presented in my classes, to the apparent bewilderment and/or amusement of my graduate-level students.

“You know how it is that young children who have yet to master an understanding of conservation may tell you that the same amount of liquid is ‘more’ when it is in a tall, narrow vial than when it is in a short, broad beaker? Although I, of course, know that the amount is the same, I still understand how, in the tall vial, the amount is more.” Without missing a beat, the younger nephew, 15-year-old Eric, responded, “The way you know that the amounts are the same, that’s science. The way you know that they’re different, that’s art.”

It is possible that the retention of early views like this perception of difference may somehow preserve a childlike vision. Much of my work embraces a view of children as artists. I celebrate the blurry lines separating children from their flexible roles in pretend play or from the expressive drawings they create. The blurriness is a symptom of adult aesthetic symbols as truly as of an early stage that, with development, will be erased and/or replaced. But Eric’s insight into art and science goes beyond my perspective. His comment expands an understanding of both the firmness and the malleability of knowing. It crystallizes the interconnection between art and science, the relationship between the known and the seen, the “clearly is” and the “what may also be.”

It is in the territory of these blurry boundaries that human achievements such as the making of metaphor abound. This territory is often thought to be the province of poetry and art. But I believe it is as surely part of the landscape of science and technology, in which edges can be similarly less than clear-cut. Computers confuse the lines that distinguish expert from layperson, communication from relationship, and immediacy from distance. We can now study on our own the doctor’s diagnosis, share our views with countless unseen others, and visit the Louvre Museum or a watering hole in Africa without leaving our desk chairs. What lets us know that we remain in our chairs is science; what lets us know that we are transported is art.

Writing in Time magazine’s “People of the Century” special issue, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Seymour Papert describes Piaget as regarding children’s responses as neither entirely correct nor incorrect. Piaget respected the child and the developmental context in which responses are framed. Mr. Papert reports Einstein’s fascination with Piaget’s finding that 7- year-olds think that going faster can take more time—another understanding that is perfectly clear to me, an adult who is easily winded by running. Einstein saw the 7-year-old’s interpretation as challenging common sense in much the same way his theories of relativity did.

Cognitive developmentalists have expanded Piaget’s stages into realms including reading, morality, construction of self, and aesthetic appreciation. In terms of aesthetic appreciation, we are told that young children or novices will attend more to the colors and subject in a work of art than to the artist’s process of making it. But some paintings are about color, color as the subject of the work, color as the statement of the artist. Are those paintings best viewed by children? Or, in the context of these colorful images, do early preoccupations serve any viewer well?

In our work at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, we asked numerous 1st and 4th graders the question, “How do you think the artist who made this painting must have felt?” The No. 1 answer to this question was not, as we had expected, “sad” in the case of a sad painting, or, in the case of a happy painting, “sad and she made this happy picture to cheer herself up.” No, the No. 1 response for both groups was, “The artist must have felt very proud to be able to make something like this.”

Some argue that young children are not advanced enough in their thinking to actually understand the presence of a painter creating the canvas or to conceptualize the problems of production that artists might face. Our observations suggest that 1st and 4th graders, as makers of images, feel naturally connected to artists, whom they see as trying, as they do, to do a good job. The way in which we create a schema to describe developing behaviors and abilities, that’s science. The way in which we see beyond the schemas, that’s art.

It is important that we as educators and administrators recognize the interconnectedness of science and art. We may labor to find the mathematics in the rhythm of a piece of music by Mozart or Duke Ellington, or to make links between a Euclidian proof and a dance by Martha Graham. But these literal quests often overlook the more salient connections between art and science, the essentiality of art to science and of science to art. My nephew Eric associates art with vision (what we can see) and science with what we know (beyond visual clues). Observation serves both processes, seeing and knowing. But if we cannot see beyond reasoned knowledge to irrational possibilities, and if we cannot break the boundary of visual clues and embrace foundations of knowledge, how lackluster is our knowing and how limited our seeing?

Breaking boundaries is as much the stuff of creativity in science as it is in art.

Breaking boundaries is as much the stuff of creativity in science as it is in art. Metaphor links disparate objects that exist in separate realms, and through their improbable joining, it comes closer to truth than the literal description of either entity. “That child is a whirlwind!” speaks to the vitality of the individual in a way that can be seen and felt, a way that provides the listener with a familiar image or experience that makes the unfamiliar known. The uniting of the whirlwind with the countenance of the child says so much more than the literal description, “He’s a very active child.”

Blurring the lines, creating symbols that strive to invite, rather than to control for, multiple interpretations. This is as surely the stuff of conversations between scientists and the wider community as it is between artists and their audience. In a world in which diversity is more the given than sameness, we need to remember that science, like art, is all about multiplicity and rarely about a single tack. We learn from open questions that generate new and better questions, not just from facts that admit no variation and may suggest a one-dimensional truth.

We need always to be wary of those who pretend to have answers, just as we need always to keep those who challenge answers at the heart of our thoughts. Why should we mislead our students into thinking this world is made strong by pieces of information, when it is what we do with information that makes us strong? Why should we be so focused on the counting and scoring of right and wrong answers when what matters is how our students see beyond the numbers? In the life beyond school, it is the thinking “out of the box” not “in the box,” the breaking of boundaries not the coloring within the lines, that carve our individual and collective futures. What false information and expectation do we endorse by valuing in school those measurable, discrete responses as if they were the end in view?

The arts in our schools are essential. They shed light on and give direction to the foundations that science provides. The things we think we know, and on which we build, and from which we imagine, that’s science. The imagining, the building, the seeing beyond the given, that’s art.

Jessica Hoffmann Davis is the director of the Arts in Education Program at Harvard University’s graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass.


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