Letting Off STEAM at Montserrat College of Art

For over a decade, educators, government representatives, entrepreneurs, social scientists, economists and journalists have espoused a constant drumbeat on the critically important skills and habits of mind that students will need to possess not just to survive, but also thrive in a rapidly changing and highly competitive world. Each commentator, in his or her own way has underscored the need to prepare the next generations of college graduates to enter a society and a work force that will demand the ability to solve complex and symbolic problems, communicate effectively, identify and deliver creative content, and imagine solutions to challenges not yet identified. As the economic activity of our nation and the world continues to rapidly transform, the need to invest in education that promotes innovation and creativity has become primary to the central themes in this ongoing public dialogue.

Important voices have commented on the idea that the current emphasis on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) should expand to include an equal emphasis on Art and Design. Harvey White, founder of Qualcomm Inc., initiated the public dialogue advocating that STEAM should replace STEM. His perspective was followed by countless additional voices reinforcing the importance of the role of Arts Education and its importance for the future of America. The recent passing of Steve Jobs reminded us all again just how important design has been to the success of technology and how much the art of good design contributes to the economic choices that we all make.

When Daniel Pink suggested that the MFA was the new MBA, he didn’t literally mean that graduate study in the Fine Arts would replace study in Business Administration. He was suggesting that innovation and creativity were now critical factors that needed to be included in preparing students for current and future challenges. Design and “design thinking” has become central to all endeavors. It needs to be intentionally integrated broadly in all aspects of education.

Thomas Friedman’s and Michael Mandelbaum’s recent book That Used To Be Us again underscores the need for design thinking, creativity, and imagination as central to the path forward if America is to regain its leadership in the world economy. San Diego State’s Professor John Eger has written extensively about the “vital role” the arts play in the future of America, reinforcing the need to infuse them in all aspects of education. Harvard Professor Howard Gardner has been consistent in his articulate advocacy for the arts and their role, not only in innovation and the creative economy, but also in all of human development.

Our thinking about education needs to shift from preparing students for specific careers, to preparing students for careers we have not yet even imagined.

So how does all of the above specifically apply to arts education? What does education in the arts and specifically the visual arts actually provide for students?

Students pursuing the Bachelor of Fine Arts in the Visual Arts (BFA) are grounded in a course of study that fundamentally provides discipline, reinforces the benefits of hard work and perseverance, prepares students with tools needed to communicate in visual ways, and provides the historical and current cultural contexts for understanding and producing art. Visual Arts education also demands strong problem-solving skills, engages students in the processes of critical analysis, and prepares students for the give and take of collaborative work. All these perspectives, experiences and skills are central to adaptable and creative lives and careers, regardless of the path an individual student may take.

Art is fundamentally an intellectual exercise. Regardless of the medium or the profession in which it is realized, producing designs, creating photographic images, drawing illustrations, or painting a canvas all begin with an idea. Beyond being about ideas, art is also about effectively communicating those ideas. Answers are not found in textbooks. Answers are found in the inventiveness and creativity of the students only after intensive and focused practice, experimentation and analysis. Students studying for the BFA spend countless hours perfecting underlying fundamental skills. They study the history and context of art and associated liberal studies. BFA students delve deeply into the practices and methods that they will need to contribute as professionals, and they all have to write. Ultimately it is about the narrative.

So much of the narrative of our modern world is dependent on making meaning from images. From the latest electronic gadget, to advertisement to how we communicate and conduct commerce, the visual world is faster, fuller, and more complex. Students preparing to be visual communicators learn how to create and manipulate those images as well how to critically evaluate the information they are visually consuming. The constant practice of critique in Arts Education prepares students to evaluate what they see, effectively give and receive feedback on their work, as well as comment on the work of their peers and that of other artists. In a world that increasingly bombards us all with information in visual form, the ability to successfully negotiate and evaluate the visual environment is increasingly necessary as a life skill.

Any student pursuing an education in art often cannot imagine a different path. Matriculating in a BFA program is a commitment. It is constant hard work, the results of which have the promise of abundant intellectual, emotional and career rewards.

Experience provides more than enough evidence that life does not always proceed as planned. An education in the visual arts provides students the foundation upon which endless inventive, entrepreneurial, and creative directions can be successfully pursued. It offers the opportunity to possess and refine the habits of mind and of practice critical for success in any endeavor. It also invites students to be life-long learners, explorers, problem-solvers, evaluators, and contributors to our society.

At Montserrat College of Art, we take pride in the excellence of the education our students’ experience, the personal attention they all receive, our belief in supporting each student in the development of his or her individual creative vision, and in the quality of the living and learning community we together share. At Montserrat we prepare each student for a life of art and for the art of life.

Stephen D. Immerman is president of Montserrat College of Art.

Painting of “The Magician and the Trick with Doves” by Montserrat professor Timothy Harney.

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