Friday, 7 April 2017

There's probably an -ism for it

There have been a few things I've read recently that have triggered thoughts about girls and women studying science, and what stands in their way, or whether it matters. And there's a nagging theme running through the things I've read that I'm not sure I have quite put my finger on, but I'm going to give it a go...

Firstly, there's been an interesting study by the Institute of Physics about how to improve the take-up of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects amongst girls at school. Interestingly, the key to encouraging young women to study science didn't really have much to do with the teaching of science. Instead, the biggest impact was when a whole-school approach was taken to identifying and eradicating sexist ideas, particularly the unconscious attitudes held by staff and students, and to boosting the overall confidence of the young women. Not their confidence in undertaking science specifically, but their confidence in doing and being whatever they want. And when given that confidence, and when made aware of unconscious bias and given the language and tools to tackle it, and when free to choose to study what they want rather than what they should, more girls will study STEM subjects. What is more, more boys will study "female" subjects. It's almost as though showing and telling children that we are all simply people, and that interests and abilities are not dictated by gender, liberates those children to follow their hearts and not societal preconceptions.

And then there was an article in the Guardian about the importance of teaching art, drama, music and dance rather than focussing too hard on STEM subjects. And I found it deeply, deeply insulting and offensive. Not because I disagree that there is an important place for the expressive arts in our lives and our schools, but because of the attitude that only the arts can teach creativity, and that science and engineering are not inherently creative but require that injection from the arts. Science and engineering are nothing without creativity, and when well taught, that creativity and inspiration is part and parcel of their study.

I am a scientist, and proud of being one, and I'm damned if I'm going to be told that the only way to be any good at it is to express myself through the medium of dance. There is no more truth in that then there is in claiming that a sculptor can only truly appreciate and work with marble once they have a thorough understanding of metamorphic geology. And there is an absurdity in claiming that teaching STEM subjects without expressive arts subjects will "produce clones of the robots that will threaten our children’s jobs", particularly in a world where ballet schools exist. It's hard to think of a regime more designed to churn out clones than classical ballet training, and an insult to suggest the teaching STEM subjects is destined to create "clones" with no imagination or creativity.

There doesn't immediately seem that big a connection between these two articles, aside from them being vaguely about education and STEM subjects. Except I think there is. I think there's an underlying presumption that still exists, and that even the Institute of Physics buys into, that science is different. That scientists are odd. That we need special measures. That our subjects need tender loving care to prosper in schools and children need coaxing to study them. That there is something wrong with being a scientist, something that makes you other, different, lacking. That left to their own devices, scientists will have no interest in the arts, and vice versa. That scientists are inherently un-creative, uninterested in art, music, dance or drama. That the world is divided into Us and Them, and each must be coerced into taking an interest in the other. It's almost as though C.P. Snow never existed for all the progress we appear to have made in eradicating the concept of Two Cultures.

I may be a scientist and proud of it, but that doesn't stop me from going to classical music concerts, or art galleries. It doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading the short-listed books for Booker Prize, or practising calligraphy. Being a scientist doesn't mean I have no interest or enthusiasm beyond science, or that I am incapable of appreciating other disciplines. And the same is true (in reverse) for some of my favourite humanities graduates - they possess an intellect and a curiosity about the world around them that encompasses science, language, art, technology, music and much, much more.

So how's this for a radical idea? How about we stop perpetuating the myth that science is "too hard" or that it's only for men. How about we stop pretending that there's a yawning chasm between sciences and humanities and that you're either one of Us or one of Them. How about we treat all our children as people, all of whom have infinite potential and need only to be given the confidence and encouragement to find their own path through life, irrespective of gender or societal expectation. How about we teach our children a wide range of arts and sciences, not because one is "needed" more than other, or more important, or more valuable, but because a broad education provides a richer, fuller life and greater capacity to understand and appreciate the world around you and the people in it. How about we view education as something valuable in its own right, not simply as a means to create fodder for the economy, but as a means to stretch our minds, bodies and lives, to enrich ourselves and our world and to enable every child to fulfill their potential and find their niche whilst being exposed to life's rich tapestry along the way.

Nah, you're right, it'll never catch on...

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