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On the Opportunities and Limits of ‘Creative’ Integration

Shannon Jackson, Associate Vice Chancellor, Berkeley Arts + Design

Those of us who teach the arts at research universities encounter a range of paradoxes, opportunities, and anxieties. As we are inspired to see an increase in the valuing of the arts and humanities, some of us also question the principles of incorporation at a 21st century research university, fearing that our modalities become homogenized and our practices instrumentalized. These complexities inspire us to consider, how are the arts (and the humanistic study of the arts) framed within contemporary discussions of the future of higher education?

The Integration of Humanities and Arts with Science, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education 

As a point of departure, I consider a recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM)--Branches of the Same Tree: The Integration of the humanities and arts with Science, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education to elaborate upon the puzzles and potentials of creative integration. I focus particularly on two general concerns 1) the homogenization of the ‘arts and humanities’ in the STEM/M landscape and 2) the mixed effects of a discourse of “creativity” in a neoliberalizing university landscape.

“All religions, arts, and sciences are,” according to Albert Einstein, “branches of the same tree.” That quote inspires NASEM’s report and might offer further inspiration for those of us who care about the future of liberal arts education, and the future of the arts in the liberal arts. Branches of the Same Tree amasses a range of familiar arguments, including those that take a longer view of the history of higher education. Our own University of California system is featured in the report in a few places. It recalls the 19th century Morrill Act which founded “land grant” universities with a commitment to access, equity, and interdisciplinary knowledge for all classes. Branches also worries about the status of “integrated” knowledge in a university that is increasingly “siloed” intellectually and bent toward pre-professional training. It begins by recalling the prescient critiques of the UC system’s own Clark Kerr, when he sounded the alarm of a ‘multi-versity’ bent on disciplinary segregation, or as he famously said, “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking” (Kerr, 2001, page 15).

Throughout the report, Branches re-sounds the alarm, offering bold statements about the necessity of integrating all “branches” of knowledge and discovery in order to face the grand challenges of the 21st century and beyond. Here is one of many exemplary statements:

“Those who see integration as necessary for addressing the challenges of our time argue [...] that to address the challenges and seize the opportunities of our time will require an education that draws upon all forms of human knowledge creation—the artistic, humanistic, scientific, technological, and medical—and the intersections and connections among them” (Branches: 12).

I had the pleasure of attending a gathering hosted by the National Academies to vet the report and plot future steps. It was an inspiring day that included artists, humanists, and foundation leaders—as well as arts-friendly scientists and engineers. Thomas Rudin, head of Higher Education Initiatives at NASEM, said it was probably the largest number of artists and humanists who had ever set foot inside the Academies’ buildings. He also said that he would like the report to inspire students to think differently about their education; “instead of asking them to tell us their major, what if we ask them, ‘what problem would you like to solve?’” (Such a proposal echoes one proffered by our own Provost Paul Alivisatos as he imagines the future of Discovery in undergraduate education at Berkeley; “I hope that in the future, we won’t only ask Berkeley students, what was your major, but what was your Discovery Project?”)

Paradoxes, Opportunities and Anxieties 

In a U.S. context where the arts have been variously joined to the STEM fields—under rubrics like STEAM and SEAD—it was heartening to know that NASEM itself had decided to commission the report.  While I remain committed to socializing and advancing the project, it was also interesting to experience points of confusion, misrecognition, and occasional friction as all of us joined in the attempt to integrate the ‘tree’ of higher education.  Even the shift of attention from majors to ‘problems’ raises questions of whether artistic practice or humanist pursuits can be legitimated by identifying a Problem to be solved. With such proposals, one can feel like an ungrateful guest in a well-appointed house. Shouldn’t we accommodate ourselves to the codes and principles of our host, in part to find a more secure abode for ourselves?  Perhaps yes, and perhaps no. My own view is that meaningful “integration” will likely have to face concerns about the parameters of integration; my hope is that such harder work, sometimes ungrateful work, will ultimately yield a more robust and rich ground in which to cultivate branches and trees.  

The Homogenization of "the Humanities" and "the Arts" 

As previewed above, a central concern has to do with the homogenization of “the humanities” and “the arts” in STEM/M gestures of inclusion. What are the limits and opportunities of claiming value under the rubric of the ‘arts and humanities’ when the practices of art-makers and humanists can also differ in goals, skills, professional networks, and social effects? What are the limits and opportunities of claiming value under the rubric of “the arts” in this report, when art forms such as theater differ more and less significantly from painting, sculpture, music, dance, film, poetry, fiction, media art, and a variety of design practices?  (Indeed, what are the limits and opportunities when even “theater” can be so different from itself?)

It is inspiring to see Branches arguing for the importance of this vast domain, whether doing so in the field of medicine or arguing for its importance in the future of the workforce generally. We regularly see arguments for the arts and humanities joined together, touting the importance of teaching students critical thinking, collaboration, project management, empathy, compassion, cross-cultural sensitivity, and tolerance of ambiguity. At the same time—and while wonderful modalities to celebrate -- these are not the same modalities and are arguably differently cultivated in different humanistic and creative contexts.

What is the best way to respond to this kind of homogenization?  Is it worth differentiating creative spaces and their differential effects? A painting studio might teach imagistic thinking—maybe even whatever non-artists mean when they say ‘visualization’—but perhaps we should not put pressure on that studio to teach ‘collaboration.’ Nor would all painters, particularly abstract painters, want us to assume that ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ should be essential to painting.  One can move through a variety of comparisons – differentiating the somatic and ensemble training of choreography from the audio – and ensemble—training of music. Of course, efforts to de-homogenize the arts risk new forms of reduction, differentiation, and re-homogenization. Music, dance, theater, and painting are not only different from each other, but different from themselves and have their own trajectories of cross-pollination.

There is a question then about whether and when the embrace by STEM/M allows us to foreground rather than to repress our inter-media and intra-art sensibilities. Other twists produce other opportunities for foregrounding -- and other risks of repression. We can consider the opportunities and risks of linking the arts with design, one with which I regularly contend in my role at Berkeley. The STEM/M embrace—and higher education embrace—of ‘design’ has prompted more invitations to more well-appointed houses, but many artists wonder if the invitations comes under false pretenses. While many sectors now tout the importance of creativity and “design thinking,” not every artistic practice seeks to re-frame or “open the solution space” of “real-world” problems. Many seek to question the perceived Real of our World. And many eschew the aesthetics of post-it-note creativity. Finally, given all of our own internal debates around theory, practice, critique, historicism, and a-historicism, it does seem ironic to see “the humanities” elided so easily with “the arts.” Are the “critical thinking” skills, the “communication”, and capacities for “ethical decision-making” cultivated in the same way in a historian’s lecture, in a video production class, or in a theorist’s seminar? If only theory/ practice distinctions were always that easy to resolve.

As forms differ in medium, form, affect, sensory engagement, critical effect, functional goals, and solo and ensemble conventions, they arguably face different risks and offer different opportunities in STEM/M higher education.  While it will take some patience to demonstrate that each practice is based in quite different genealogies, the integration of branches will be at its best as a discourse if there is time taken to parse this disciplinary variety.

The Neoliberalizing of Creativity Discourse and "Future of Work"

Before concluding, I will linger on another point of tension familiar to anyone who has worried about the instrumentalizing and political effects of a contemporary discourse of creativity.  How do we address the mixed effects of the discourse of ‘creativity’ amid the neoliberal pressures of its capitalization, especially when the STEM/M embrace seems to rely on it? Many of us have been down this road before, whether recalling the problematics of a “Creative Class” discourse (Richard Florida), or the less than stellar “integrations” when we first learned that the M.F.A. could be the new M.B.A. (Daniel Pink). As Art School presidents start their “incubation” platforms, as the N.E.A. launches new forms of ‘entrepreneurship,’ as new degrees and impact investment vehicles like Upstart Co-Lab take root, there has been a great deal of internal debate around these “creative” conjunctions. Can we bring those debates with us to a project like Branches of the Same Tree?

One place to look concretely at this question is in the domain of labor, careers, and the role of creativity in the future of the workplace. The liberal arts—and especially the arts in the liberal arts—have suffered from what has been increasingly defined as a vocational and pre-professional orientation in higher education. In contemporary higher education discourse, however—and in the report of the National Academies—many might be heartened to find a new “Future of Work” language that argues that future of leaders of a 21st century workforce will not be able fully to anticipate the technological, planetary, urban, transportational, and social changes that will define labor and employment. In such a context, there is no sure way to be “pre-professional” when the relationship between the pre -of now and the post- of then is so unclear.  

Is there a different opportunity for “artists” and “humanists” now in a context that fears an automated ‘future of work’ --and hence scurries to cultivate the irreplaceable skills--the “uniquely human” skills-- of creative making and critical thinking?  

We suddenly find a discourse that needs to double down on the uniquely human to save the humanities, just as humanists have been theorizing the post-human.  There can be an internal contradiction in this discourse, especially within Leonardo journals or longer-term art/technology/science conversations that resist any clear distinction between human and machine capacities.  That said, growing social fears of Frankenstein can be opportune, offering an alternate path for legitimating our practices and pedagogies.  

A slight variant of the Future of Work argument is also worth considering, one that focuses not only on ‘uniquely human’ skills but also on the inevitability of dynamic change. Future of Work discourse touts the impossibility of knowing that future.  The argument then reverse engineers to say that we need a flexible workforce, one that could withstand change and pivot on a dime. It’s here that the value of creativity takes a different turn, sidling into a discourse that uses language like responsiveness, adaptability, or improvisation. And that discourse also foresees a world in which future workers—the future of students here at UC Berkeley—includes multiple jobs and career changes. Once again, the improvised adaptability of creatives is at risk of rationalizing the other neoliberal side of the flexibility coin—the precarity of whatever future those working lives will entail.  And once again, can our theoretical and internal work on the neoliberalizing of creativity discourse be welcomed into conversation with STEM/M, or is it too sour a note to retain entry into the house of our National Academies?

Joining Hands, Growing Branches

Having posed a range of meandering questions, I’ll conclude by suggesting that it is worth risking the sour note—and worth working through other risks as well.  It is worth noticing that “the sciences” are in danger of just as much homogenization in this embrace, the internal differentiations amongst fields associated with the S, the T, the E, the M, and the second M are often elided as well. It is also worth noticing that—in the United States--- the arts, humanities, and sciences all now occupy a different place in the national landscape, one that devalues scientific and evidence-based research almost as much as cultural practice. Furthermore, between the conservative critiques of universities and the libertarian entrepreneurial platforms that offer an alternative to college, the future of higher education is a constant subject of debate.

Branches of the Same Tree should thus also be interpreted within a wider macro perspective, one that seeks to join hands, grow branches, and stitch relations amongst “two cultures” that need each other for the project of higher education – and the grander project of democracy – to survive.