Dec 272010
Rhode Island School of Design
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A silver lining in the dark cloud of any recession—especially this one, thought to be caused by our own greed and excess—is the opportunity it affords us to reexamine our collective values. On the positive side, the nation seems to be as committed as ever to the power of innovation as America’s saving grace. What is less comforting to me as president of an art and design school is how America defines innovation. Do a search on the White House website for the word “innovation” and the top results revolve around technology; talk to any parent with children in public schools and you will hear about arts-education resources diminishing quickly. I feel there is a disconnect between the words “innovation” and “art” that needs to be resolved if the United States is to prevail as the most creative economy in our world.

Public commitments to STEM—science, technology, engineering, math—education abound all over the country. In the government’s mind, these subjects are the key to innovation. As a lifelong STEM student myself, with degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, I am certainly not one to diminish its value. Yet in recent years even supremely dedicated geeks like me have begun to question the advances that come from purely technological innovation.

We seem to be stuck in a kind of technology loop. It began in the 1980s with computers that could display only text and play limited sound. Images then became possible, and with CD-ROM technology came high-fidelity sound and full-motion video. In the ’90s, when the web took hold, we started again with text, limited sounds and images, then high-fidelity audio, and years later we reached the point of full-motion video. Now we see the cell phone in our pocket experiencing the same progression from text, to sound, to audio, to video—and we are supposed to feel like we are enjoying incredible progress. But it seems the tricks are exactly the same each time around the loop. I’m looking for a new trick.

After two decades as a student and faculty member at MIT, my newest experience at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has reawakened me to the world of physical creation. RISD represents the ultimate culture of makers. There is no greater integrity, no greater goal achieved, than an idea articulately expressed through something made with your hands. We call this constant dialogue between eye, mind, and hand “critical thinking—critical making.” It’s an education in getting your hands dirty, in understanding why you made what you made, and owning the impact of the work in the world. It’s what artists and designers do.

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