Chris Staley
May 9, 2011 8:25am EDT

Which is more important: art or science? Most people would say science. In answering this question I can’t help but think of the word Sputnik, and my grandfather James Killian.

In 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, it extended the Cold War into space and altered the trajectory of my life. At that time my grandfather was the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and shortly after Sputnik was launched he was chosen by President Dwight Eisenhower to be the first full-time scientific adviser to the president. In my mind, my grandfather became “Mr. Sputnik.”

What most people did not know about this leader of science was that he also was an artist. He was an active painter and sculptor. I have vivid memories from my youth of walking around his cluttered studio above the garage and seeing works of art in progress. Equally indelible are comments he made about art’s ability to inspire us all to learn.

When school boards and college administrators are faced with budgetary cutbacks, art classes are often the first to be deemed expendable. However, in these times of accelerating change we need art in our schools more than ever.

Why? At its core, art is about asking questions and exploration. More than ever, we live in a world that needs creative solutions to difficult social, political and economic problems.

The essence of art is creativity. If we are afraid of failure and consumed with getting the right answer, it inhibits our ability to explore a wide range of creative options. The search for new ways of seeing and understanding is at the heart of both scientific and artistic discovery.

It was Thomas Edison who famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

In other words, the creative process can save us from the poverty of our intentions. This willingness to simply try things for the sake of trying things is a leap of faith. It is the belief that play and chance have inherent value that can lead us to great discoveries.

Increasingly our educational system is based on a means to an end. It’s an environment geared toward memorization and test results, not creative, explorative learning. We have lost sight of the fact that we learn not just with our minds, but also with our hearts and bodies.

Once my 9-year-old daughter Tori asked me, “Dad who is more creative, children or adults?”

I said, “I don’t know. Who do you think?”

She said, “I think children are because we have more time.”

Her poignant insight confirms what we know — that slow time can allow for meaningful moments of reflection. Yet in a society that emphasizes efficiency and production, the notion that play and time to reflect are an integral part of learning can easily be dismissed.

In his book “The Education of a College President,” my grandfather wrote, “In a very deep sense art and science are interdependent, and they spring from the same act of imagination.” During difficult economic times, fear and anger can negatively influence our decisions to move forward in a positive direction. In contrast, art can inspire our imaginations to move beyond our fears, to a more promising way to live.

We need the foresight and courage to create classrooms where exploration and play are encouraged. We need to remember that questions are just as important as answers.

Chris Staley is a distinguished professor of art in the School of Visual Arts at Penn State.

Read more: