What do you want to be when you grow up?

In my presentations to both school and business audiences, I ask who is an artist and who is a scientist.

The idea of course is that my proposal is that to be creative we have to be both scientist and artist. We need to be able to embrace both logic and chaos, both critical and possibility thinking.

At a school recently I spoke to an audience of 14 year olds. I asked the question,’who here is a scientist’. Note this is after I have explained what a scientist is in simple terms – someone able to question, to make judgements, to experiment to search for the truth. Out of a group of sixty, five hands went up (two of those were teachers). I’d already warmed them up so I knew they were capable and confident in raising their arms to earlier questions.

Does that surprise you? Perhaps not. But the name of that school had as it’s suffix “school of science”. Science was its specialism and yet know one who attended it was a scientist? Why? My theory is that none of the pupils considered themselves ‘a scientist’ or ‘an artist’ or anything else because those are labels applied only to worthy adults. They hadn’t noticed that if you do science, you’re a scientist. If you do art, you’re an artist. Their version of the situation was that they are pupils. Boring, unimportant, useless and irrelevant pupils. Their job, their identity was to be a pupil. You might well say, what’s wrong with that? I feel it’s so limited and constraining that it’s dangerous.

Children adopt this label of nondescript ‘pupil’ as their identity. Then they reach 14 or 15 and are told to choose a route to a job. They used to call it ‘Which Way Now’ with a poster of some inane Radio1 DJ with his headphones on, as if he was some expert in career development. We ask them to choose another label. Do you want to be a doctor or a tv presenter? There probably were a few other rubbish choices. To be a doctor the pathway is fairly clear: you have to be good at everything and then go to medical school. Almost every other profession is less clear. How do I become an archeologist? How do I become a philosopher? Those ‘options’ weren’t on the poster. How do I become head of marketing for a major international corporation? No-one knows. The options are so limited. The reason they are even more limited is that the ‘chooser’ has to make such a leap from generic pupil to sophisticated label. There’s such an obvious chance hat the pupil says ‘forensic science sounds interesting, but I’m not that type of person. I don’t know anything about it.’ Of course they don’t have technical knowledge, but the attitude or ideals probably was there, at one point but was suppressed out by genericness.

I went to a large mechanical engineering exhibition when I was seven with my Dad whose company was exhibiting large machine tools. It was called MACH’78. On arrival you were given a name badge which had your name, occupation and company embossed it just like a credit card. How exciting to get my name on such a object! They asked me for my name and typed it into a computer. I was about to give my occupation and company name when they printed the card. Under my name it read: ‘Schoolboy’. I was incensed that my identity had been reduced to something so trivial, and short-lived (I saw my attendance at school as a temporary condition). Perhaps I hadn’t really got it clear in my head exactly what I would have put had they asked me but that’s not the point.

I was lucky. My imagination wasn’t dulled by such things. Perhaps a large group of children do still flourish in the same way. But from what I’ve seen at schools I’ve visited, we’re doing a big disservice to so many.

What do you want to be when you grow up? What an annoying patronising question.

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So Why Can’t We Be Polymaths?

In this age of specialisms and niching, we’re all told to be good at something (see last issue). But by that many people usually mean for us to be rubbish at everything else. We’re streamed and channelled in our education system to hammer home the messages that we can study science OR the humanities, be an artist OR technician, languages OR mathematics etc.

Like many others who came through the state school system in the UK, I was frustrated that I couldn’t do German because I was doing Physics. The system wasn’t flexible enough for that combination of subjects so they had separated the sciences and languages out. The school was obviously unaware that German was the language of physics (until the aftermath of the second world war), just as French had been the language of Chemistry a century earlier. So I chose the science route and amazed my fellow students and teachers by my magical ability to draw. It was almost as though their brains were shortcircuiting, ‘You can draw and yet you study science? That does not compute!’

This pigeon-holing is dangerous to our creativity. Creativity is a whole-brain activity. A truly creative person is both artist and scientist. The greatest scientific discoveries were made by individuals who thought visually, as an artist thinks and had the imagination necessary to push out the boundaries of what was possible. Harry Kroto who was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996 loved graphic design. That helped him create two dimensional data into a 3D model of carbon-60. (Interestingly enough my degree dissertation was involved in analyzing a tiny, tiny bit of this work). Scientists who understand aesthetics, beauty and form have a creative edge. The greatest artists knew how the physical world worked for them to be able to create form from chaos.

So why can’t we be polymaths (person of wide ranging knowledge or learning)? If we want to be creative individuals with something to offer the world then I’d say that it is imperative that we become whole, both artist and scientist.

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