Darwin’s Regret

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts; but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. […] If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept alive through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” The Autobiography of Charles Darwin: 1809-1882.

Portrait of Charles Darwin (detail) by Ellen Sharples (1816)

Portrait of Charles Darwin (detail) by Ellen Sharples (1816)

Darwin’s concern that he had damaged his own intellect by excluding arts from his life is one that we might also share. Many of us, as STEM educators, have also left the arts behind in our own work and lives, and in our teaching of science we typically do so as well. Could we be causing damage to our intellects and the intellects of our students? How might we re-intergrate the arts and design into our lives, research, and teaching?  Is there evidence that the arts can make better scientists of us all?

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2 responses

  1. As Darwin’s reflection is autobiographical, mine will be as well.

    I am a science integration specialist in an elementary school, a member of the vanguard, as it were, in STEM education. 🙂 My major hobbies, however, are in the arts and outdoors: I sing in a classical chorus, write poetry, and sail and paddle my canoe.

    As a teen, I had little interest in science, but loved nature. Embracing the counter-culture perspective, I championed intuition as something alive, scorning analysis as deadening. Believing our technological pursuits had become destructive, I was interested in traditional crafts and homestead farming which I saw as more in harmony with the earth.

    As a young man, I tried to confront my sense of alienation from society by studying history. Could I, both sympathetically and critically, understand people and their pursuits in different times and places, and then in our own?

    In midlife, I decided first to learn geographic information systems, and then veered again to become a science teacher. By then, I had long come to regard analysis as a necessary part of clear thinking, and a central tool in appreciating the world. Observation, experiment, and analysis as tools for appreciating the world are central to what I do as an elementary science specialist. (I do remain keenly interested in the problematics of categorization, a routine step in much analysis.)

    I still feel our societies and the earth are paying a price for lack of cultural values (and institutions) of restraint and ecological fit in the use of technology. On this as well as other political issues, I remain a critic, and I struggle with both disappointment and hopeful engagement. I am also aware that many people with whom I disagree on matters of policy and even “social values” struggle with the same.

    The arts help me deal with all of this. They both express appreciation and create things to appreciate. They wrestle with understanding, lack of understanding, struggle, disappointment, and hope. They can play a key role in presenting what we love, and in teaching us how to love it. Ultimately, it is what we love that we will work for.

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