The arts get a boost from Emerging Issues speakers

Staff WriterFebruary 10, 2010 

— Mass-producing engineers and scientists is a futile defense against foreign competition. So warned author Daniel Pink, the featured speaker Tuesday at the 25th annual Emerging Issues Forum at the Raleigh Convention Center. Pink said a nation's competitive edge for global supremacy will increasingly depend on training a new breed of scientists and engineers who approach problem-solving like painters and novelists.

Pink, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review and Fast Company magazine, was the second featured speaker to critique the limits of quantitative analysis as a force for social change. On Monday, Canadian business professor Roger Martin similarly denounced the notion that the United States must emphasize math and science education at the expense of the arts and literature.

The reign of the scientist-technician is coming to an end, Pink said. People who perform routine, repetitive mental tasks can easily be outsourced, and the nation's education system is developing obsolescent skills, he said.

"We're reducing kids into vending machines who spit out the right answers," Pink said. "There's a notion out there that if we only train armies of scientists and engineers, we're going to be OK."

Pink, a Yale Law School graduate who was a speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore, recently published "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us." He is reacting to whatmany see as the one-dimensional focus on efficiency in management theory and public policy.

He was one of several high-profile speakers at the two-day conference, created a quarter-century ago by then-Gov. Jim Hunt to bring together business, political and academic elites to gnaw on the state's most pressing concerns. The theme of this year's confab is creativity, and the global economic downturn lent urgency to the discussions.

Much of Pink's hourlong speech could be summed up as a Renaissance philosophy that exalts the arts, embracing all branches of learning.

After Pink spoke, Richard Whittington, managing director of theTriad Stage theater in Greensboro, said commentary like Pink's and Martin's was refreshing, but it came a decade too late for the no-nonsense business and political leaders who dismiss the arts as a frivolous indulgence.

"We've lost a generation of arts supporters because they didn't have it in schools," Whittington said. "Most of the people in this room have had it beat out of them."

Pink gave an overview of the history of civilization as an evolution from physical labor to routine intellectual tasks, an epoch that is now coming to an end. The routine tasks include basic accounting, finance, law and computer programming - work that can be performed by computers or cheap foreign labor.

"Machines replaced our back," Pink said. "Software is replacing our brain."

We are entering a paradigm that will require creative, big-picture thinking, he said.

Current educational measures such as the SAT emphasize the left-brain quantitative thinking that's becoming less important in human affairs, he said.

"We need to infuse arts education throughout the curriculum," he said. "The arts aren't ornamental; they're fundamental."

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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