From the People Who Brought Us Beatrix Potter…

I’m reading Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. Like many nonfiction books for grown-ups, it has thin pages, small margins, and very tiny print, so I haven’t finished it yet. This isn’t so much a review as a wow-this-got-me-thinking.

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, to be honest, except when I’m researching—too many amazing novels, am I right? But I first spotted this book at the Missouri Botanical Gardens gift shop on a lovely weekend in St. Louis, and I was feeling all flowery, and the book itself is gorgeous, and I have loved Beatrix Potter’s work since my tiny hands were the ones holding the tiny books designed for tiny hands. My cat’s name is Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit, after Tom Kitten’s mother. We call her Twitchit for short.

Lear begins her story several generations before Beatrix Potter is born, as we all must when studying any historic event or subject. It’s hard to understand a person without understanding her influences. So far, I’ve read about Beatrix Potter’s family and childhood. I was already aware of how most educated people in the nineteenth century (and at any point up until maybe 1950) tended to value the arts and sciences equally, but this time it just bowled me over, probably because I’ve been thinking (fuming) about it a lot lately.

Here’s the thing that really gets me. Through several generations of Potters and Leeches (Potter’s mother’s family), there’s an equal value placed on the arts and humanities and on what today is being called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Of course, if you work with children or write or draw for children or happen to know any children, you’ve heard of STEM. Let me say up front that I have exactly zero problem with the elements of STEM. They are great and necessary and useful, and the world wouldn’t be much without them.

I just don’t value STEM to the exclusion of all else. I don’t value STEM to the exclusion of art and music and drama programs in schools. I don’t think STEM is worth the constant slaps on the wrist my own home disciplines, Social Studies and English, get for existing. I don’t even value STEM to the exclusion of much-maligned sports programs, because there are some kinds of learning that happen only on the field of play and some children who can be reached only there.

I would also never dream of telling STEM it is worthless. It is not worthless. Neither are the arts and humanities, but that is a message I’ve been hearing most of my life, and it’s a message that is broadcast loudly to our young people when we cut funding from everything else.

Sometimes, I feel a vibe that says those of us who chose the arts and humanities maybe aren’t quite as smart—or at least not as savvy—as those who chose STEM. That we did this because we had to, because we couldn’t be engineers or mathematicians or scientists or computer programmers.

I never threw myself into science and math the way I did English and history, but that was my choice. It wasn’t because I was bad at math. I took the GRE twice because my scores had expired by the time I applied to round two of grad school. The first time I made a 730 on the quantitative section. The second time I made a 750. I say that not to brag—because who cares what I made on the GRE?—but to illustrate the point that I am pretty dang good at math. I just loved stories more.

I guess I had a bit of a reputation in high school for being good at English, and one of the math teachers had it out for me from the moment I walked into her classroom. I had never had a problem with a teacher before, so the fact that she hated me sight unseen was a bit of a shock. She made a couple of nasty little remarks—to a seventeen year old—about how English was unlikely to get me anywhere. I dropped her AP Calculus class and signed up for regular pre-cal, made a 98, and read books in that class all semester. This is probably still the best decision I’ve ever made.

A few years ago, I took a botany class at the college I work for to try to finish up my Illinois school media certification. The instructor wondered—aloud—if an English teacher would be capable of completing this course because, “It’s not a fun little class for home gardeners. This is serious science.” Yeah. No joke. Good thing I was up to the challenge.

My students come into my classroom every year wondering why they have to take English courses, why they should have to take gen eds at all, how this is ever going to be useful. I always tell them that everything I’ve ever gotten in life, I’ve gotten because I know how to write.

Every year, it becomes increasingly obvious how terribly their literacy education has been neglected. I don’t mean to turn this into a woe-upon-us-the-future-is-dismal post because I don’t think the future is dismal, but the lack of critical thinking, of reading comprehension, of logical thought, is scary. It’s scary because those who control the words control the stories. And those who control the stories control the world. Even in STEM fields. Because of the way their critical thinking education has been neglected, my students are vulnerable to being lied to.

Partly, this is the fault of NCLB and teaching to the test. What teacher has a choice in this anymore? But it’s also due to the fact that they have been told—or at least they have received the message—for most of their lives, that the arts and humanities are worthless and will not bring them high-paying jobs. (I get that the cost of college is appalling and student loans are a millstone around the neck. That is a different issue. I also know this is all mostly driven by economics, and it’s hard to put a dollar amount on the kind of critical thinking the arts and humanities teach, on the way they apply to every possible field of work.)

A world without the arts and humanities is a world without books, newspapers, advertisements, magazines, churches, music, movies, architecture, plays, television, government, comic books, law—the list could really go on forever. It’s a world in which we don’t have the ability to understand the meaning of STEM fields. It sounds like a pretty worthless world to me.

So what I love so much about the environment in which Beatrix Potter grew up—and the Potters were far from unique—is the gorgeous balance of STEM and the arts and humanities, the understanding that they all have worth and that they work best together and not when students are forced to make a choice about what they will be good at and not when teachers are forced to take sides.

Beatrix Potter is best known today for her children’s picture books, but she also did amazing work in the fields of conservation and animal husbandry. She was an artist and a scientist, like so many of her contemporaries.

I’m so tired of the attack-and-defend practices between STEM and the arts and humanities. It’s a false dichotomy. Maybe we can have one without the other, but why on earth would we ever want to?

Beatrix Potter’s parents and grandparents realized this, and you know what they gave us?

Beatrix Potter.

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6 thoughts on “From the People Who Brought Us Beatrix Potter…”

  1. Are you serious?! She really made snarky remarks? Not cool! I dropped that class, too. I have yet to use my biology degree or any of my higher level math, but I use my writing all the time. Leonardo da Vinci is my hero, mostly because he was amazing in so many different areas!

    1. Oh, I am 100% serious. I realized one day that I had never described myself as a person who hated math until I encountered her. And then I also realized that I’m not actually bad at math. She just somehow made me think I was, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, which says a lot about the power of stories we tell/are told. If nothing else, I learned from her that I never wanted to be the teacher who made someone hate/think they are bad at English. That’s probably led to some of my students getting away with stuff I should have squelched ;-)

      1. Now that I think about it, I have a hazy recollection of sitting on the opposite side of the classroom and feeling bad for you because she was in attack mode. I was pretty sympathetic, as well, because I’m reasonably good at math, too, and calculus makes zero sense to me.

  2. I hadn’t put it together that the humanities are being denigrated these days. I have noticed that girls are being encouraged to pursue science and boys have been falling by the wayside. That’s sad. I would have appreciated science and math encouragement when I was a girl. I loved the ideas and opening up of the world that abounded in science as much as I loved the ideas and opening up of the world that were rampant in literature. I’m not being as thorough in this comment as I would like, but I wanted to thank you for expressing something that hadn’t quite made it to the forefront of my thinking.

    1. Thanks for chiming in, Jinjer. I have heard that some school districts are starting to refer to “STEAM,” adding the “A” for “arts.” I hope it catches on.

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