A silver lining in the dark cloud of any recession—especially this one, thought to be caused by our own greed and excess—is the opportunity it affords us to reexamine our collective values. On the positive side, the nation seems to be as committed as ever to the power of innovation as America’s saving grace. What is less comforting to me as president of an art and design school is how America defines innovation. Do a search on the White House website for the word “innovation” and the top results revolve around technology; talk to any parent with children in public schools and you will hear about arts-education resources diminishing quickly. I feel there is a disconnect between the words “innovation” and “art” that needs to be resolved if the United States is to prevail as the most creative economy in our world.
Public commitments to STEM—science, technology, engineering, math—education abound all over the country. In the government’s mind, these subjects are the key to innovation. As a lifelong STEM student myself, with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, I am certainly not one to diminish its value. Yet in recent years even supremely dedicated geeks like me have begun to question the advances that come from purely technological innovation.
We seem to be stuck in a kind of technology loop. It began in the 1980s with computers that could display only text and play limited sound. Images then became possible, and with CD-ROM technology came high-fidelity sound and full-motion video. In the ’90s, when the web took hold, we started again with text, limited sounds and images, then high-fidelity audio, and years later we reached the point of full-motion video. Now we see the cell phone in our pocket experiencing the same progression from text, to sound, to audio, to video—and we are supposed to feel like we are enjoying incredible progress. But it seems the tricks are exactly the same each time around the loop. I’m looking for a new trick.
After two decades as a student and faculty member at MIT, my newest experience at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has reawakened me to the world of physical creation. RISD represents the ultimate culture of makers. There is no greater integrity, no greater goal achieved, than an idea articulately expressed through something made with your hands. We call this constant dialogue between eye, mind, and hand “critical thinking—critical making.” It’s an education in getting your hands dirty, in understanding why you made what you made, and owning the impact of the work in the world. It’s what artists and designers do.
As tricks come, as far as I can tell this isn’t a new one at all. But it certainly feels like it transcends mere trickery: It is truly substantive magic for the soul. Students at RISD don’t think in terms of megabytes or equations; they think in terms of the warm, complex voice of a material like wood, or the way that glass finds its resting place differently on a cold winter day. Their hands, and sometimes faces, are literally covered with the materials they use to shape, angle, mutate, and translate their thoughts into handcrafted realities.
Being an artist, I feel that art comes from the inexplicable urge to manifest a feeling, intent, or question as a specific, tangible experience. Artists do research with an open-mindedness and rigorous inquiry unseen in most other disciplines, except true science. They systematically and visually survey the world of ideas, objects, and experiences for inspiration by rummaging through it with their bare hands. I know most of us today are more likely to get the job done with cleaner hands through a search on Google Images. But at RISD the story of someone’s work more often comes from a first-hand journey through many emotional worlds, rather than an analysis of an online slideshow of poorly photographed experiences.
We have a facility on campus called Nature Lab. Founded in 1937, it houses more than 80,000 true specimens of nature—from skeletons to saplings to salamanders. Students can check out a butterfly from the lab and bring it back to their dorm room overnight. It’s really a Victorian approach to science, based on meaningful observation of something real. “Real” also abounds in the RISD museum. Need to see a real Monet or Rothko? You can stand within millimeters of it. Our students are within steps of the visceral emotion of experiencing a masterpiece, and the making that went into it.
And so I’ve begun to wonder recently whether STEM needs something to give it some STE(A)M—an “A” for art between the engineering and the math to ground the bits and bytes in the physical world before us, to lift them up and make them human. What if America approached innovation with more than just technology? What if, just like STEM is made up of science, technology, engineering and math, we had IDEA, made of intuition, design, emotion, and art—all the things that make us humans feel, well, human? It seems to me that if we use this moment to reassess our values, putting just a little bit of our humanity back into America’s innovation engines will lead to the most meaningful kind of progress. By doing so, we will find a way back to integrating thinking with making and being and feeling and living so that left- and right-brained creativity can lift our economy back into the sky.
John Maeda is president of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Originally published December 27, 2010