“The Arts provide a universal understanding of personal experiences.” – Mae Jemison

September 17, 2012

There is a huge divide between arts and sciences. University is where this became crystal-clear to me: the many hours that science students had to spend in lectures and doing practicals, compared with the reading weeks that arts students got. Scientists can often be arrogant about how their subjects are so much more difficult and important, but the truth is that more than a few arts students will support that mindset.

I met a woman recently who was married to a Hungarian that studied chemical engineering at university. “He had to study it in Russian,” she said. “I could never do chemical engineering in English, let alone in Russian!” I kept my mouth shut for various reasons, but I wanted to say: I could. Sure, I can’t handle Russian and I am impressed at the number of languages this guy has under his belt. But why on earth is becoming a chemical engineer such an incredulous thing to accomplish?

Clearly, I am still a bit arrogant about my ability to “do science,” but most of the time I am not being egotistical. I am trying to prove that there is nothing so difficult that a woman can’t handle. I think this is important to shout out about, because it’s the only way that the collective mindset will shift. I hate hearing women say, “oh, I can’t handle technology.” YES YOU CAN.

The problem is that while we fight to bring science down to a less intimidating level, no one’s really considering the other side of the equation, namely, the implication that arts are easy. The truth is that neither arts nor science are more important. They are different, complementary and necessary to who we are as human beings.

Of course the arts are hard too, let’s get that bit clear. Everyone knows what writer’s block is, everyone knows that van Gogh and Edgar Allen Poe were woefully unappreciated in their lifetimes. Elizabeth Gilbert did a controversial Ted Talk on Your Elusive Creative Genius, discussing externalising the creative spirit so as to gain control over it.

It is my belief that one of the reasons that arts subjects are viewed as easy is because people think that you either have it, or you don’t. Musicians are born, not made. That’s not true. While people obviously have natural ability, all things can be learnt to a certain degree before natural ability takes you to the highest echelons.

But how do arts fits in with the sciences?

Science or art? A ridiculous choice. The arts and sciences are connected. And our mission, is to reconcile and reintegrate science and the arts. Both the arts and the sciences are not merely connected but manifestations of the same thing — they are our attempt to build an understanding of the universe, and our attempt to influence things (things in the universe internal to ourselves and the universe external to ourselves).

The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity — [they] are our attempt as humans to build an understanding of the world around us….

– Mae Jemison, “The arts and sciences are not separate”

Mae Jemison came to my attention as an astronaut. The first black woman into space, she is a dancer, has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, is a medical doctor and was a Peace Corps volunteer. She believes strongly in teaching both the arts and sciences, both intuition and logic, as one — to create bold thinkers.

It’s not a new idea. In fact, Einstein said it himself, many years ago: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Why is it so difficult to marry the two? Logic or analytical capability is generally desirable for high paying jobs, while intuition is hardly mentioned. In business, you occasionally hear men throw out terms like “gut instinct” – just a macho term for intuition – and yet, there’s no overt discussion about focusing on those capabilities or selecting individuals with such characteristics.

It is clear that intuition is necessary for high achievement: this is the magic component that lets you make sharp decisions quickly, that enables you to venture forward confidently when you have no precedent. Yet, no one is interested in developing it. After all, intuition, like any art, can be learnt. We all have the ability, but the modern business world just hasn’t gotten there yet.

Intuition, creativity, originality. These things are necessary for the success of the numerical world. It’s time to step up and look at the holistic picture, instead of splitting things apart into too many pieces.

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