The Hard Science of Art

I’m not sure if two semesters of college as a chemistry major qualify me as a scientist. Probably not.  The fact that I carried around a business card sized copy of the periodic table of elements in my wallet should count for something.  For many of us, the allure and prestige of what we often term the “hard sciences” conjures up images of heavy physics textbooks, late nights of study, and that unfortunately intimidating label of “advanced math.”  Indeed, math and science often serve as proxies for academic rigor and as a benchmark for intellectual vitality.

Science aside, I spent my evening last night attending a high school production of the musical Beauty and the Beast with my two oldest children.  The production was the culmination of a summer enrichment program through Santa Ana Unified (my new employer) that allows teams of teachers and administrators to submit proposals for summer enrichment activities for students.  One of those programs brings students from Santa Ana’s eight high schools together for a summer musical production.

The musical was thoroughly entertaining.  I certainly consider keeping my 5 and 6 year old happy for over two hours as strong evidence for success.   As I sat watching, I could not help but reflect on all of the disciplines that must come together to pull off a show of high production value.  Of course we pay close attention to the quality of the vocal performances and choreography.  We cannot help but scrutinize the visible elements of stagecraft.  While our focus is drawn to the stage, we hardly notice the orchestra below, itself the harmonious integration of dozens of disparate players and instruments.   Nor do we pay much attention to the team of lighting and sound crew whose presence is typically only detected when something does happen to go wrong with a microphone or light cue.

Yes, many of us may fear a Calculus classroom, but is that really more rigorous than a public exhibition of our vocal or dance talents?  How does following the algorithmic steps of a math problem compare to the precision required for the execution of a six-minute choreographed dance number with 30 teenagers on a stage?  While we wrangle with questions of academic proficiency and mastery, the arts have faithfully and relentlessly asked students to demonstrate  both their technical and emotional intelligence in terribly high stakes venues.  Seriously, what could possibly be more difficult for a 16 year old adolescent than to dance to “Be Our Guest” dressed up like a giant glittery spoon in front of his friends.

Last night’s performance was a spectacular demonstration of mastery-based learning at its finest.  It had only been a few days earlier when I stopped by to watch a rehearsal.  It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing.  A dance instructor was working with the majority of the cast on a dance number while the drama teacher nearby was staring down the on-stage character Lumiere while modeling a hand flare.  All the while, the lights were flashing on and off, apparently running through a set of cues that was out of sync with what everyone else in the room was doing.  I walked past a parent volunteer working at an impromptu sewing station on my way back to the room where the band and orchestra teachers were huddled together with the orchestra in a practice session. The visible, cacophonous cycle of student performance and expert feedback masked an even deeper web of professional collaboration and commitment.

Obviously we cannot shirk our responsibility as educators for preparing the next generation of scientific thinkers and computational problem-solvers.  Yet we should also not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that math and science have a monopoly on rigor.  I suspect most serious artists would agree.

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