By Joe Ferguson
Usually, when a teacher spouts, “I learn as much from my students as they learn from me,” I bite down hard, feign a smile, and move on to another topic. This time, however, things were different.
I had just taken over the “Philosophy in Practice” class at the College for Life Chiropractic College West for a cohort of graduating chiropractic students, and I thought I was being clever by throwing up an image of Magritte’s “Collective Invention.” I was supposed to teach these soon-to-be doctors philosophical applications to clinical practice situations, ethics and the like, and though I had a significant clinical background, I wanted to inject some real Humanities into a science program.
“Can anyone tell me who painted this?” I ask as I point to the screen.
“René Magritte,” I say. “What do you think the artist is telling us?”
A student raises his hand. “That evolutionary theory is flawed?”
“Why do you say that?” I ask, after a pause.
“Because the lumbar spine of a chondrichthyes would not be able to withstand the torsional forces produced by the pelvis during bipedal locomotion.”
Before I can respond another student raises her hand. “Yes,” she adds, without being called on. “Plus the pulmonary physiology of a fish wouldn’t support the energetic needs of land-based locomotion—particularly running or climbing.”
Several students start nodding. Everyone’s eyes are glued to the painting, as if searching for an answer to volunteer. A few hands go up and I call on someone from the front row.
“Perhaps he was saying that ultimate truth is in art not science, because the creature depicted could not exist in real life…couldn't be explained by science.”
I had wanted to use this question to segue into a discussion of definition, of how the language we use to communicate with our patients and the public may be misinterpreted. Magritte, who considered himself a “visual philosopher,” was not implying any of the answers my students had given me. He was asking us to question “what is beautiful?” However, Magritte had never presented his work to a group of students who had spent the last 7 to 8 years studying the sciences.
“Those are all good answers,” I said, and I meant it.
None of my students had supplied the intended interpretation, but none of them had been wrong. They had made valid interpretations of a piece of art by contextualizing the image with what they knew.
I finished my lecture by explaining what Magritte had intended, and then handed out an appropriate in-class assignment. As the students sat in groups arguing about how best to relate complex health issues, I was left wondering if Magritte had missed the mark.
There are many books and articles dedicated to the analysis of Magritte’s work, but I’ve never run across any that would have prepared me for the responses I received the first time I presented that lecture. And while there has been much written lately about SciArt, and collaborations between scientists and artists, it seems to be written toward one direction: relating scientific ideas in interesting, visual ways to non-scientists.
Within our institutions of higher education, we need to emphasize a two-way street between the sciences and humanities. Instead of solely struggling to find ways to make science “interesting” to non-scientists, we also need to make art relevant to those who are engaged in the sciences. If, as George Lakoff asserts, to be innovative the sciences need to add arts into the curricula then shouldn't that art appeal to that audience?