Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The STEM-ification of Art (What Happened to Art Schools (2))

In 2013 Jose Ferreira, founder of Knewton, 'the world's leading adaptive learning company', posted a piece entitled 'Don't defund the humanities: they're crucial to the economy too'. The post draws on analysis of funding trends in U.S. education which, at that time, favoured STEM subjects (science technology, engineering, mathematics).[1]

Ferreira urges caution in relation to the STEM-ification of humanities subjects, arguing that the humanities should not be devalued just because they produce individuals with relatively hard to measure skills, such as 'communications skills, critical thinking skills, and multicultural proficiency'.

Ferreira at least attempts to explain what makes the humanities operationally valuable in society, but he also writes from a position in which certain power relations between corporations and citizens are taken as given. His post draws comment suggesting some enthusiasm for a status quo in which the majority of citizens are constrained by the self-serving machinations of powerful commercial and financial players; a status quo in which an ambitious student would necessarily expect their education to help them to a share in such power.

In his analysis, Ferreira cites a U.S. factoid: 'over 65% of [U.S.] elementary school students will end up in jobs that don't yet exist'. To extrapolate, conversely: student choices everywhere, at many levels, must be influenced by jobs markets that are bound to fluctuate between enrolment day and graduation day. Such fundamental uncertainty is problematic for any highly instrumental education policy.

Real-world uncertainty can also be convenient for advocates of humanities disciplines not focused on specfic vocational outcomes, but on endowing students with quailites deemed generally advantageous. It's often easier to show that humanities graduates can be broadly sucessful 'in many walks of life' than to show what their success has to do, specifically, with the discipline they studied at university: what is it about 'Shakespeare' that makes a 'good' civil servant? How does a Fine Art degree make a good lecturer?

Humanities graduates might succeed as much by learning to navigate the selectivist social fields around their disciplines as by the mastery of a specialist disciplinary knowledge ("knowledge" for the humanities being more varied in form and function than the scientific or technical knowledges associated with STEM subjects). Some advocates of the humanities are happy enough with this kind of settlement, especially, perhaps, if they achieved success themselves via a fuzzily-defined socio-disciplinary route.

But what if, today, societies are at a juncture where a greater number of STEM-trained people really are required to administer essential functions? Should we still defend the generalist humanities against encroaching STEM-ification?

I remain attached to the ideal of education for education's sake; or for the sake of increasing the number of educated people in society, whatever their socio-economic roles. Whatever the predictions for future social needs, changes in art education disturb me. This is partly for personal reasons, including a nostalgia for a time when art schools epitomised what today might be seen as a luxurious liberalism. I've commented on this personal/political overlap elsewhere in this blog.[2]

Notwithstanding the limitations of my own perspective, let's imagine that U.K. art education is altered in order to incentivise course applications in the present STEM-friendly culture, perhaps by universities marketing educational packages that appeal to current student choices (however these may be informed). In a decade or two, we could have a U.K. art education no longer loosely aligned with multiple purposes - as it has been for decades - but targetted at students seeking predefined roles in various artistically-inflected industries (music, film, television, games design, advertising) many of which, in their own ways, encourage the STEM-ification of art.

I note that this is a possible outcome; I speculate about whether or not it's to be desired.

In 2014, the U.K. government launched an initiative to encourage enrolment in STEM subjects in UK universities. Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan described the kinds of education required for Britain 'to succeed in the global economy' and for 'the British workforce of tomorrow [...] to have the skills and knowledge to compete [in the future]'. In her speech, Morgan presented the interests of the country as concurrent with those of the generation entering higher education in 2014 and beyond, arguing that STEM subjects would maximise their chances of finding rewarding roles in future society.[3][4][5]

Some of the comment following Morgan's speech exposed a tendency for advocates of the humanities to squeal in non-specific anguish at any hint of an instrumentalist education policy. However, the ability to counter such instrumentalism with a strong argument for the humanities seems almost as out of reach for some, today, as it was for literary critic F.R. Leavis in 1963.

Leavis was famously outraged by C.P. Snow's 1958 lecture The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, in which Snow states (amongst other things) that the lives of the poor might be more radically improved by science and engineering than by modernist literature.[6] Leavis was condemned and mocked by the ascendant liberal left for his over-personalised response to Snow: Two Cultures: the Significance of C.P. Snow.[7] Having studied that text in detail, I find Leavis's attacks on Snow, with their incidental account of an emerging 'publicity created culture' around the arts, more coherent than his advocacy of literature.

I believe there remains today a tendency for advocates of the humanities to band together according to fellow-feeling, rather than strong argument, and thus to perpetuate the impression that those who find a social role in relation to artistic practices are a tribe apart, bound on terms that they cannot readily explain to the outsider or the sceptic.[8]

Often it seems that the science/humanities debate takes place in terms that are either so narrow as to be of little interest in wider society, or so obvious as to not matter very much. In the case of Nicky Morgan's arguments, it is obvious that many selectively-trained, computer-literate people will be required in order to carry out many of the tasks that future societies will depend upon: around energy supply, medical services, various aspects of infrastructure, and so on.

There remains, however, the important political question of the context in which such highly specialised work will be done. For instance, will future engineers and scientists serve in a realm which is largely privatised, or state-regulated? Will they be able to apprehend the common good and exercise judgement in its interests, or will they have to serve the interests of corporate masters whose ethics are vaguely yet unquestioningly bound up with the supposed natural morality of markets?

While ever debates around contemporary art are pursued within narrowly defined social fields, art will have difficulty in credibly claiming that its virtues, values and gains are aligned with the common good. Here art begins from an especially weak position. The outcome of artistic debates is less important, in an immediate material sense, than is the playing out of specialist knowledges in, say, a genetics laboratory, a large hospital, or a nuclear power plant. And society at large might justifiably have little interest in the intellectual culture around art if it is primarily dedicated to authenticating and legitimating art practices that few pursue and even fewer can make a living from.

I drafted this post in 2013, in response to a flurry of debate about independent (and perhaps temporary) art schools not affiliated with universities.[9] Here, it was suggested that the massive hike in U.K. student tuition fees in 2010 had focused minds on what art education, especially, is for. Fees of £9K and above do seem particularly onerous in return for any kind of course that a student might want to take up for its own sake, rather than for a job in an established (supposedly creative) industry.

STEM-ification may serve as a survival strategy for fine art in U.K. universities, especially those at a greater geographical and social distance from the metropolitan art world. STEM-ification is also about fitting in with a state-supported system which government has recently sought to change, in order to 'create a level playing field that will enable private providers to compete on equal terms with public universities'. (One government-sanctioned alternative to public universities in the U.K. is the mega university run by private equity firms[10]). In this context, enrolling on a short, unaccredited course in a private or temporary art school, to engage for a short time with artists and academics who are unconstrained by institutional dictat, might seem like a good idea to a free-thinker.

Whatever the arguments for the STEM-ification of art, it seems possible that fine art in universities has become stranded between some long-established disciplinary territories. Personally, I fear that the unique interplay of the aesthetic and the intellectual in art is too easy to downplay in the name of skimming fine art for aesthetic strategies, tactics and skills for use in other disciplines.

Meanwhile, aesthetic tactics are routinely used in the affirmative culture around neoliberal capitalism. This returns us to art's weak political position in the wider world, for the art market is part of the neoliberal game in which capital flows are bound to be privileged over the sharing of artistic culture. The art market has for decades imposed an anti-progressive orthodoxy on artistic practice, artists being encouraged to repeat themselves (to downplay their intelligence) for however long a signature artistic gesture holds its market value. Public institutions, including academies, are drawn in, protocols of evaluation becoming skewed as repetitious artists are actively authenticated for the canon: a quasi-intellectual process which, under scrutiny, seems antithetical to the idea of progressive knowledge gain definitive of an academic discipline.

In terms of upholding ideals, no-one but the broker comes out of such arrangements looking good.

It has long been routine, then, for artistic work to be resituated in contexts very different to those experienced by the young artist engaging with their discipline at art school. STEM-ification threatens resituating effects within the art school, but is, nevertheless, one aspect only of a longstanding political problematic that can be encapsulated in the following questions: Who says what art is for? How are artistic work and its outcomes to be capitalised, and by whom? And: Which ideals should guide us in addressing such questions?

I acknowledge that the social fields around many artistic practices are problematically exclusive. But I also hope that art education can introduce people to practices that constitute a thinking space for individuals in society; a space that is not sustained merely via its favourable relations with the most powerful economic and institutional forces. I believe that living among citizens who are able to think critically about such forces is almost as important to my quality of life as living among skilled clinicians, data processors, or engineers.

[1] Jose Fereira, 'Don’t Defund Humanities: They’re Crucial to the Economy, Too' http://www.knewton.com/blog/ceo-jose-ferreira/stem-vs-humanities/
[2] What Happened to Art Schools? An Accidental Manifesto. This blog:

[3] 'Nicky Morgan speaks at launch of Your Life campaign'
[4] 'Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tells teenagers: Want to keep your options open? Then do science' http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/education-secretary-nicky-morgan-tells-teenagers-if-you-want-a-job-drop-humanities-9852316.html
[5] 'Last week's poll: STEM vs humanities, and what education's for', The Engineer, 11 November 2014
[6] C. P. Snow, Stefan Collini, The Two Cultures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). (first publ. main text first given as the 1959 Rede Lecture, Cambridge 1959)
[7] F. R. Leavis, 'Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow: Being the Richmond Lecture, 1962 By F. R. Leavis', in Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962.), pp. 27-50.
[8] Paul Smith - Move over, Stem: why the world needs humanities graduates http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/mar/19/humanities-universities-global-stem
[9] David Batty, 'Alternative art schools: a threat to universities?'
[10] Stefan Collini, 'Sold Out'. Review of: Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education, by Roger Brown, with Helen Carasso and The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education, by Andrew McGettigan. London Review of Books 35.20 (2013): 3-12. 24 Oct. 2013 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n20/stefan-collini/sold-out

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