By Dr Peter Charles Taylor
Since the Age of Enlightenment, which gave birth to the modern scientific worldview, education systems have engaged students of science in learning to understand objectively – at arm’s length – the world out there: the material world of naturally occurring objects and events. Technology has always been intimately linked with scientific progress, from the first microscopes that revealed a hidden universe (where today Covid-19 thrives) to the machinery of space exploration that detects the beginnings of our universe. Today, this immensely powerful materialistic, and rapidly globalising, worldview is producing very mixed results. So, how can the Arts contribute to shaping this worldview as it ushers in the ‘fourth industrial revolution’?
Few would disagree that our materialistic worldview has enhanced the lives of many millions by providing advanced health and medical interventions, global communication and transport systems, labour saving devices, pest-resistant GM food crops, robotisation of industrial production, and so on. Of course, these advancements of modernity are not beyond critique in terms of their quality and the economic interests they are designed to serve.
One of the most pronounced downsides of our materialistic worldview is the way it is aiding and abetting the near extinction of life on Earth, as a consequence of ushering in the Anthropocene, a geological era in which the human footprint is in danger of irrevocably disrupting the planet’s natural systems. Climate change is giving rise to extreme weather conditions that are acidifying the oceans, fanning catastrophic wildfires, and decimating ecosystems and biodiversity. Plastic production, consumption and nonrecyclable waste is polluting rivers and oceans, and microplastic particles are killing marine wildlife and intruding into our food chain.
So, why do we persist in acting so destructively towards the ecosystems that support life on Earth? Some might ask why we have such contemptuous disrespect for Mother Nature (or Gaia)? What values drive our destructive habits of mind and practices? My view is that we have become estranged from the natural world, partly as a result of a fundamentalist worldview that privileges humanity over nature, and partly as result of our metropolitan lifestyles that have largely divorced us from living in the natural world. I believe also that this disconnection is deeply entrenched when we educate, or perhaps indoctrinate, young people in the materialistic worldview of science which directs them to examine the natural world solely through the lens of objectivity embedded in the historic myth of value-neutrality. A patriarchal myth that feminist science has endeavoured to explode.
So, this brings me to the question of how the arts can help to save us from ourselves, from our misguided destructive tendency of exploiting the natural world as a combination of infinite resource and trash can? The ‘us’ I am referring to are science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics (STEM) educators in schools and universities worldwide who have invested their lives in transmitting the materialistic worldview to their students, many of whom become reproductive STEM teachers of future generations. And so the wheel continues to turn.
As a mentor of STEM educators undertaking Arts-enriched postgraduate research, I have witnessed the power of the Arts to elicit students’ spectacular insights into their nonmaterial world – the world in here – the subjective realm of personal experience wherein lie our sedimented values and beliefs that underpin our identities and practices. The Arts provide powerful methods for enabling us to transform the worldviews of our students, to expand their inner horizons, to become more fully human, if you like. These methods derive from four domains – aesthetics, ethics, creativity, rhetoric – that can enable students to:
give expression to their values by engaging in narrative, performative, musical, artistic, poetic genres and in modes of reasoning that transcend the binary of objectivity versus subjectivity (rhetoric).
imagine the heartfelt joy of participating in an ideal world of intact natural systems (creativity).
justify a commitment to conserving ecosystems and fostering biodiversity (ethics).
experience falling in love with the beauty and spirituality of the natural world (aesthetics).
To conclude, I am advocating that STEM educators embrace the Arts for the purpose of expanding the worldviews of their students. As agents of salvation of a deeply troubled world, our future citizens need to be able to navigate insightfully the intersection of their external and internal worlds. To pursue this important educational goal of personal, social and environmental sustainability, STEM educators would benefit from collaborating with Arts colleagues to develop interdisciplinary STEAM curricula and pedagogies.
Dr Peter Charles Taylor is Chair of the International Transformative Education & Research Network (iTERN) and Adjunct Professor of Transformative STEAM Education at Murdoch University, Australia. He has worked in universities for over 3 decades, specialising in research as transformative learning for cultural and environmental sustainability. His integral model of transformative research engages professional educators in exploring their cultural histories and identities, excavating their values and beliefs, reconceptualizing their professional practices, and developing their agency as transformative educators for a sustainable world. His latest book, co-authored with Professor Bal Chandra Luitel, Kathmandu University, is Research as Transformative Learning for Sustainable Futures: Glocal Voices and Visions (2019, Brill/Sense).