On Common Ground: Science, Technology, and Teaching

By Thomas R. Whitaker


On the facing page the American painter and inventor, C. W. Peale, portrays himself lifting the curtain upon the grand project of his later years, a museum of natural history. Let us here echo his gesture, in a modest way, by lifting the curtain upon a number of On Common Ground devoted to science and technology. Our first three numbers have emphasized some broader contexts of partnerships between schools and universities: federal-state relationships, the historical perspective, and the world of work. We now engage more closely some of the problems and opportunities that such partnerships must confront in the classroom.

The Essays: Some Connections

The Images: Some Perspectives

The images in this number complement the essays in a variety of ways. Several of them quite explicitly provide artistic and historical perspectives on certain aspects of science, technology and teaching.

C. W. Peale's The Artist in His Museum, on this page, celebrates the artist's own remarkably various career, which had taken him from painting (he was the most notable portrait painter of the American Revolution) and invention (he designed a truss bridge, for example, and a fireplace that consumed its own smoke) on to the study of natural history. He became an avid collector of birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects, organizing his collection in accord with the scientific principles of the day. And through twenty years of labor, he created the first serious museum of natural history in the western hemisphere. That museum sponsored the first American scientific dig, which excavated a fossil skeleton of a mastodon a process that Peale recorded in another notable painting.

In The Migration Series, Jacob Lawrence traces the great migration between 1916 and 1930 that took more than 4one million African Americans to the North. Panel 58, which we include on this page with "Voices from the Classroom," carries as its text: "In the North the African American had more educational opportunities." At age twenty-three, Lawrence had already married tempera technique with a synthetic cubist style. In this panel the jagged rhythms and bold symmetries provide a rather syncopated harmony with the arithmetic sequence that the girls are writing on the board. As Lawrence later said about this cycle: "I tried to create a staccato-like rhythm over and over and over again with the shapes as they move. . . I build on the geometry and I love it." And yet he so strongly identified with the figurative elements that he could also say: "I don't think in terms of history in that series. I think in terms of contemporary life. . . If it was a portrait, it was a portrait of myself, a portrait of my family, a portrait of my peers."

On our front cover, William H. Johnson's Dr. George Washington Carver pays homage to the great African-American scientist who was also an inventor of new agricultural products, a teacher at Iowa State College and Tuskegee Institute, and an artist in several media. By developing products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans, as well as cotton, Carver effectively revolutionized the agriculture of the South. Johnson's painting, which employs his late style of "conscious naivete," orders in a single brilliant design a multiplicity of scientific, technological, and economic relationships, glimpsed in part through moments in Carver's life.

On our back cover, a detail from Diego Rivera's fresco cycle, Detroit Industry, focuses on the manufacture of the engine and transmission of the 1932 Ford V-8. The entire mural project, on several walls at the Detroit Institute of Arts, places the automotive industry in a broad mythological, historical, geographical, and geological context. In this panel, however, the workers are given the faces of Rivera's assistants and Detroit acquaintances. Rivera thus offers a secular and pan-American answer to the cosmic scope, universal history, and contemporary details often found in the frescoes of European churches.

Other images in this number may seem to have abstracted science, technology and teaching from any historical context. But they teach us in other ways, leading us into a realm where design and color have merged with the depiction of a technological, geometrical, or arithmetic "subject."

That is true even of Thomas Eakins' Drawing of Gears (page 15), an academic exercise carried out by a student at Central High School in Philadelphia who later became a major American painter. Here the beauty of the geometrical forms that are essential to the mechanical transmission of energy seems at one with the beauty of graphic design.

Josef Albers' Homage to the Square (page 9) is one of many such works painted during the latter part of his life by this teacher at the Yale University School of Art and Architecture. They were part of his study of the "saturation of colors" and the mutability of color perception, topics treated in his book, Interaction of Color. This painting proposes a realm in which science and art overlap or merge a realm of ambiguity and mystery, where luminosity is a transcendent energy.

In Jasper Johns' 0-9 (page l6) on the other hand, the ambiguities are more jarringly insistent. Arithmetical symbols and aesthetic form here seem at odds and yet in harmony. They are mutually obscuring and mutually confirming. To look intently at this image is to be shuttled endlessly back and forth between digits and design.

Finally, we include with the "Book Review" (page 21) a work by John Frederick Peto, for whom books often provided the occasion for eloquent formal designs. Nine Books was given to the Yale Art Gallery by Charles F. Montgomery, late Professor of Art History at Yale, and the Curator of the Garvan and Related Collections of American Art. Had it not been for his untimely death in 1978, Montgomery would have led the first Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminar on American Art.

More on the Arts in Our Next Number

There are strong arguments for the importance of the arts in the educational process. Judging from the recent decisions of many school administrators, those arguments have not been heard. Herbert Read's Education Through Art, first published a half-century ago by Faber and Faber (3rd ed., 1961), is a classic in this field from which we still have much to learn.

Our next number will focus on this topic. It will include, among others: Scott Massey on "The Arts as Knowing," Elliot W. Eisner on "Why the Arts are Marginalized in Our Schools," James Gray and Richard Sterling on "The National Writing Project," and Marty Trujillo on "Saint Joseph Ballet's Program for Inner-City Children."


Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1995 Issue of On Common Ground

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