STEM needs a Bloom (and that’s the Arts and Humanities)

John Lithgow giving the keynote address for the National Arts and Humanities dinner in 2012.

Actor John Lithgow recently discussed the work of the Commission of the Humanities and Social Sciences (of which he is a member) and gave some thoughtful remarks about the value of the humanities as part of his keynote address at this year’s dinner honoring the fifteen recipients of the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal.  Among his observations were that,

civil discourse, self-knowledge, empathy, the habit of learning, and yes, the capacity for joy, are indeed learned skills and that they can be most effectively taught to young people through the arts and humanities, and I believe most fervently that the health of a democracy absolutely depends on these qualities.

He also criticized STEM–“the very word gives me the screaming wim-wams.”  He clarified that he appreciated STEM in every child’s education, but that, “the arts and humanities are every bit as important as STEM and a balance must be struck”:

Picture a flower, a big bright flower in full bloom.  The flower’s stem is STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  It is the superstructure, the infrastructure, the support system of the flower itself.  The arts and humanities are the blossoms, of course–the source of the flower’s beauty, its fragrance, its identity, the visible mark of its health, and the wherewithal of the flower to reproduce itself. The stem is functional, strong, and essential, but pare away the blossom, and the stem has no purpose, no function, no value.  In time it will wither and die.  It cannot survive the loss.  So much for STEM.

He closed his remarks by noting that,

The arts and humanities are our bulwark against fear.  Tonight’s honorees don’t avoid harsh truths, they engage us.  They don’t divide us, they connect us and reveal to us our common ground.  Their gifts to us are a mixed bag, but what a glorious mixed bag it is.  And what gifts.

More details at the Washington Post.

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