In these fraught times wherein our bodies, minds and spirits are continually being tasered by the latest news of ‘swingeing cuts’ and ‘spending priorities’, it will come as no surprise that my thoughts have turned to the question of the human brain.
No, not the brains of politicians, left or right. Instead, I’m thinking about the skills we need to create a sustainable economy, and how we gain those skills. I’m also thinking apparently unfashionable thoughts about how we become complete human beings rather than machines, and how we develop the capacity for self-expression, communication and empathy.
With the decimation of the UK manufacturing sector now a distant memory, and the more recent discovery that bankers were securing staggering bonuses by leaking toxic assets into the money supply, there’s lots of talk of a so-called ‘knowledge economy’. This is against a backdrop of hand-wringing about a lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) grads in most Western countries compared with the (rapidly) ascendent economies of India and China.
A few highlights: On 4 November, David Cameron did a song and dance act in East London, vibrant home of dozens of tech start-ups, proclaiming his government’s ambition to support innovation by copying Silicon Valley. That was precisely the same time we learned that the universities secretary David Willetts plans to eliminate government funding for courses in the humanities, social sciences and arts, at such globally-renowned institutions as the London School of Economics and the Royal Academy of Music. Meantime, the tycoon-inventor James Dyson, who taught us everything we ever wanted to know about suction, has become the high priest of STEM-focused education, crossing the globe to spread The Word that technology – and technology alone – will save us.
(Not incidentally, the government has also cut skilled migrant visas by a fifth, presumably based on the logic that if we can’t turn out more STEM grads ourselves, we’re bloody well not going to hire theirs either. Sadly, the irony of throwing this bone to the right-wing grassroots in order to assuage distinctly left-brain anxieties about immigration is a subject we don’t have room for here.)
Now I have some sympathy with Dyson who was, I suspect, justifiably annoyed by Richard Florida and his followers. If you recall, Florida was the guru du jour who assured us through best-selling books such as The Rise of the Creative Class that the ‘creative economy’ filled with people who work in the media, design and the arts would occupy the void left by the manufacturing sector, resuscitating dying town centres and creating jobs. And guess what? It didn’t. Sure the creative industries are a net contributor to the economy – a fact perversely ignored by the current government – but people didn’t move to Seattle because Rem Koolhaas built a library there, and we didn’t all start working in film so we could wear Converse All-Stars to work and smoke our kids’ pot, while still making a decent living.
In short, when Lehman Bros collapsed, Florida’s ‘creative economy’ wasn’t there to catch our fall.
Nonetheless, the ‘STEM vs the arts’ claim is being wildly overplayed in the current discourse. What’s worth noting is not merely the number of young people spurning engineering in order to attend art school. It’s the number of kids rejecting STEM subjects in favour of ‘business studies’, which is currently the most popular undergraduate specialism in the US. These aren’t kids latching on to easy courses that equip them with vague pseudo-skills. They’re young people who want to cash out like the bankers and hedge fund managers did, buying up contemporary Chinese art and teenage Czech fashion models, and pouring Krug on their breakfast cereal. Throw in the kids who aspire to be footballers, Wags and sundry other ‘celebrities’ and we’ve lurched out of skills territory, and into the more troubling realm of values.
But where I really take issue with Dyson, Willetts et al, is in their narrow definition of ‘creativity’, and here’s where we return to the question of the human brain. Clearly, the view that only STEM subjects are worth pursuing implicitly privileges so-called ‘left brain thinking’, which relies on a model that’s both rigidly dualistic and anachronistic by now.
Not that I’m disputing the science behind the split-brain phenomenon. More than 40 years have passed since neurologists discovered that the two sides of the brain perform discrete functions. But this fact alone doesn’t tell us which aspects of brain function ‘invention’ uses, or how it uses them. As the computer scientist and designer John Maeda said recently, ‘superior innovation comes from bringing divergents (the artists and designers) and convergents (science and engineering) together.’ In this sense, finding a ‘solution’ to a ‘problem’ might appear to be a purely rational pursuit, but it nonetheless requires us to think beyond what’s in front of us, to imagine an alternative to what’s there. Surely this is what ‘creativity’ looks like?
The psychiatrist and intellectual Iain McGilchrist was so alarmed by the consequences of this left brain bias that he obtained a fast-track medical degree in the UK so he could head for the US in order to work on brain imaging at Johns Hopkins. That’s where he concluded that the Enlightenment view that the role of the mind is to tame the spirit is far less enlightened than the Renaissance view, in which science and art were not regarded as mutually-exclusive. If you need proof of their synergistic relationship, take a look at the impact of the ‘vanishing point’ on Renaissance painting, or consider how da Vinci’s formal training in anatomy manifests itself in his paintings of the human body.
It’s beyond dispute that we need to support industries based on an assessment of where the jobs of the future lie, and encourage education in those pursuits. But given the ambiguity about how ‘inventive’ thinking is achieved, it’s tough to avoid the conclusion that there’s more to these trends in educational realignment than economic health. As Naomi Wolf put it recently, the detail of the cuts exposes an agenda aimed at targeting ‘the kinds of education that lead to an open, vigorous civil society and a population that is hard to suppress.’ As such, a key virtue of the STEM fixation, coupled with cultish blood-letting in the humanities, is that its reassuringly macho ethos reflects the spirit of our times, in which we are instructed to shut our eyes to the troubles of those around us, confident that technology will save what we imperfect humans have almost destroyed.