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There's a Fire on the Mountain

Publication Date: 2011-03-27

Mickey Hart is best known as drummer with the Grateful Dead. He is also a Board Member, Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and is married to a Ph.D. (from UC Berkeley) whose topic was climate change and public lands. This essay is from Huffington Post, March 22, 2011.

NOTE: The movie mentioned in this essay, "The Music Never Stopped," is based on Oliver Sacks New York Review of Books essay "The Last Hippie." If you want to read it, e-mail me and I'll send it: susano@gmavt.net

The drumbeat of politicians sounding the alarm about the need to rethink how we educate children in this country is music to my ears. But the rhythm of the conversation, which tends to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, is missing a beat: STEM needs an A, for the Arts.

How did I learn this? The hard way... I hated science in high school. Technology? Engineering? Math? Why would I ever need this? Little did I realize that music was also about science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all rolled into one. As I began to fulfill my dreams these skills became my allies, my new instrument.

The more I studied music the more I recognized rhythmic patterns in nature and the relationship between the vibrations of a drum and the geometry of the universe. When my old friend Bill Graham was "recycling" concert tickets twice, and then paying us for half, I learned to count. Math class in session. When the Grateful Dead needed a quality sound system to deliver our sonic payload, I learned electronics and speaker design. Engineering class in session. When the Deadheads recorded and distributed our performances worldwide, I learned about computer networks. Technology class in session.

Now the kid who hated science and math in high school works with the Nobel-prize winning astrophysicist George Smoot, collaborating on how to create music from the epic events created in the forming of the universe -- from the Big Bang to the galaxies, the stars and the planets.

I also joined forces with neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has shown me the power music and rhythm play in awakening a damaged mind as documented in the new film The Music Never Stopped. Science now tells us that vibrations reconnect damaged neural pathways, meaning music therapy can be as healing as physical therapy.

Neuroscientists also have shown that the brain is hardwired for music, innovation and creativity, all other human activities follow. No human culture known to historians or anthropologists has ever existed without music and dance. The arts are a necessity for insight: the arts make us human.The energy that you acquire from art and music turns inspiration into invention. This allows an inventor to dream up something never envisioned before and creates new industries and good-paying jobs.

I don't propose to simply add art or music classes to the schedule. I mean making the arts a key variable in the STEM equation. Art sparks creativity and instills a sense of wonder and discovery without which learning often winds up being nothing more than rote memorization. Instead of teaching our kids to memorize well, we should be teaching them to think for themselves and to apply their imaginations. We need to fill their heads with more than just facts if they are going to compete in the global economy that is a knowledge economy. Creative thinking is what is needed to, in President Obama's words, "out-innovate" and "out-educate" the rest of the world. It's creativity that links education and innovation by taking what is learned in the classroom and using it to make something new.

Art in the classroom not only spurs creativity, it also inspires learning. More organizations concerned with the state of science education in this country are beginning to embrace this idea. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, is reaching out to the artistic community through its Science & Entertainment Exchange, which matches scientists with filmmakers to more accurately portray science -- and scientists -- on screen. It also encourages collaborations between teachers and creative figures in the entertainment industry, including video-game designers, to develop tools to stimulate learning.

The arts are usually the first thing to end up on the cutting-room floor when budget scissors get sharpened in Washington. However, the president has proposed a 13 percent increase for the National Science Foundation, which has a program dedicated to funding "informal" science education projects including arts-based learning initiatives. It may be informal but using the arts to teach science or teaching it outside the classroom, such as in a museum, is the type of hands-on, inquiry-based learning that prompts creativity and improves reasoning and problem-solving skills.

The point is that the arts are important enough to have influenced the greatest minds and talents we know. Albert Einstein said that if he were not a physicist, he would probably be a musician. "Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories," his wife reported. "I often think in music," Einstein admitted. "I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music."

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