Why we need the Arts in a STEM world

I am a great believer in the power of technology – in its broadest sense – to take the human race forward. I appreciate the power of innovation and creativity in science, technology, engineering and maths, and I know that we must invest in teaching our young people about the value of these subjects, because they have not received enough attention or focus in recent years, and as a result the balance in our world of employment is out of kilter, with not enough scientists, technology experts, engineers and mathematicians to fulfil the requirements we have to maintain and develop the progress we need to make the world cleaner, safer, more productive and perhaps even happier and more balanced.

I therefore had a lot of sympathy with Nicky Morgan, UK Government Secretary of State for Education, when she said recently that encouraging more young people – especially girls – to study STEM subjects was a vital part of the UK education plan. It would be wrong, however, to see this as an exclusive edict – STEM subjects are of course incredibly valuable, and there is no doubt whatsoever that girls and women are underrepresented in the field, which is (at best) a heinous waste of resource and opportunity. To make STEM the focus of all attention to the exclusion of the arts, however, would be foolish and ultimately self-limiting.

I am currently immersed in Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize Winner, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. It tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor and almost accidental hero in WWII, struggling to keep himself – and his fellow men – alive in the (beyond) terrible conditions of the building of the Burma-Siam railway. In describing an early scene in the book, the author writes: “there was around them so much that was incomprehensible, incommunicable, unintelligible, undivinable, indescribable” … and the power of these words, which explicitly do not communicate or describe, communicates and describes more accurately than almost anything else the horror of the circumstances in which the Diggers found themselves. The power of the chosen word, the authored word, is immense: it conveys us back in time to places where we are glad never to have gone, but which we know we must recreate in our memories so as to be repelled and to speak out against them in the  future, should the need arise. To such an end, the power of science bows to the power of the arts.

Later in the novel, in a flashback to 1940, when Dorrigo finds himself in a bookshop in Adelaide, looking for an old copy of Virgil’s Aeneid, the author writes that it wasn’t really Virgil’s great poem that Dorrigo Evans wanted, but rather the ‘aura’ of such books – “an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone”. In fact, this feeling was so powerful that at such times, as the author describes it, “he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work – an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end”.

The beauty of human literary creation, contrasted with the horrors of the inhumanity of the war, which in terrible irony are communicated with force and impact through the very same literary beauty by the author, is breathtaking. Science may explain the horrors of the Burma-Siam project – the engineering of the railway itself, the biology of the human body as it faced intolerable strain, the psychology of the captors and the prisoners … but the art of the writer is needed to bring this home to us.

Do read Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ if you haven’t already done so – and as it drags you into an understanding of the horror that human beings can inflict on one another, and connects you with our human past, and reinvigorates you in your determination to do your bit to ensure that this never happens again, take a moment too to be thankful to the author and to his literary education and experience. Above all, allow it to remind you why we should never, ever, lose sight of the importance of the arts in our world in addition to the sciences. Without them working in tandem – and no matter how much we elevate STEM in national education plans – we will not make progress.


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