Arts and Crafts – Why bother?

outdoor work polytunnel

In discussing with our Block 3s what they are doing at the moment, I was glad to hear that clearing their tutor group’s area in the polytunnels and planting their winter vegetables feature prominently. As an earthy activity well away from the classroom, it may be a more lasting influence than what happens within the traditional academic curriculum. Likewise, a chance visit to our theatre to hear Blind, a one person beat boxing show on Friday night, could have a profound influence.

Over the last couple of weeks UK broadsheet newspapers have given space to news of a group of Swedish academics and their long-standing bet concerning their respective abilities to quote Bob Dylan lyrics in their research articles. Thus, science and the arts coincide in an entertaining way that, clearly, is seen as exceptional in some way. And yet are they really such unlikely bedfellows?

The late Steve Jobs, perhaps the best known popular innovator/entrepreneur of recent times, explained that he and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were also big Dylan fans. However, Jobs’ involvement in the arts extended well beyond simple appreciation: rather, he is on record as seeing artistic sensibilities such as intuition as central to the business of technological innovation.

To continue on this theme, Einstein explained how the music of Mozart revealed to him a harmony he believed existed in the universe, and that he was convinced that music was a guiding principle in the search for important results in theoretical physics. Albert Schweitzer, as well as being an eminent physicist, was an organist and Bach scholar. Besides being a highly successful author, Beatrix Potter conducted highly respected work on the reproduction of fungi spores. So far, so anecdotal – but there is more compelling evidence emerging that those working successfully in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) benefit from the development of a facility in the arts and crafts.

In 2008 a study[1] of large numbers of scientists found that the most eminent were significantly more likely to spend some of their time in productive arts and crafts pursuits, with the resulting skills being of direct professional benefit. This not a new phenomenon – in the late 1900s JH van’t Hoff investigated several hundred historical figures in science and concluded that the most innovative of them practised in the arts and crafts when they weren’t hard at work on the day job.

A study by LaMore et al published in 2013[2], and drawing on the testimonies of a sample of science and technology graduates from Michigan State University, challenges any assumption that arts and crafts should be considered optional extras to ‘serious’ subjects. Instead, findings supported what the more anecdotal material seems to tell us – that people working successfully in STEM professions are far more likely to have arts and crafts experience as calibrated through numbers of company start-ups and patentable inventions, and that their innovative capacity is directly stimulated by arts and crafts knowledge. This brings to mind Steve Jobs’ observation that the team that developed the Macintosh desktop computer were musicians, poets, artists, historians and zoologists who just happened to be the world’s best computer scientists.

At Bedales, we are of the view that there is considerable intrinsic value to be had in an education that is rich in the liberal arts, including the visual arts and design. But for those who are persuaded only by instrumental arguments of value, the question as to why we should bother with such things can be answered simply and emphatically: the creative industries comprise a significant and growing proportion of GDP and so offer great opportunities, whilst the influence of an artistic/crafts sensibility and attendant skills appears to go hand-in-hand with successful scientific and technical innovatory careers.

This being the case, the questions we should be asking are why the arts and STEM subjects have come to occupy such very different places in policy thinking, and why the former have been so significantly downgraded in the priorities of the current government? It is of note that the arts-sciences dichotomy has not always been as unshakeable as it appears to be today. Jung’s ‘Artist-Scientist’ archetype united these supposedly disparate elements in the wonders and dangers implicit in curiosity; more recently, the sociologist Richard Florida posited a ‘creative class’ made up of scientists and engineers as well as poets and people in design and the arts – something that I suspect would have found favour with Steve Jobs and Einstein alike. Life at Bedales very much reflects a similar belief.

[1] Root-Bernstein, R.S., Allan, L., Beach, L., Bhadula, R., Fast, J., Hosey, C. & Weinlander, S. 2008. Arts fosters success: Comparisons of Nobel Prize winners, Royal Society, National Academy, and Sigma Xi members. Journal of the Psychology of Science Technology. Vol 1(2), pp.51-63.

[2] LaMore, R., Root-Bernstein, R., Root-Bernstein, M., Schweitzer, J.H., Lawton, J.L, Roraback, E., Peruski, A., VanDyke, M. and Fernandez, L. 2013. Arts and Crafts: Critical to Economic Innovation. Economic Development Quarterly. Vol 27(3). Sage.

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.