Turning Our Eyes From The Stars*

My six year old son has a deep, unending fascination with the universe.  He is mesmerized by books and stories and documentaries about space, the moon, the planets, the solar system, the Hubble Telescope, the Big Bang, Black Holes, and Dark Matter.  He brings home book after book from our public library, filled with images and information that his six year old mind can hardly even begin to understand.  But, despite his limited capacity for understanding them, his thirst for these grand ideas is real, and his enthusiasm is constant and it is contagious.  The more time I spend with him and his obsession (which, as a work at home Artistic Director, is a lot of time, actually) the more I am reminded of my own childhood, where I nursed similar stargazing obsessions and tooled with the dream, like so many kids do, of the unfathomable idea of one day traveling to the stars.

Last week, my children and I sat tuned in to the Nasa website and watched the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, effectively ending an astonishing era of manned space exploration.  After this launch, our rocket engines will be cooled indefinitely, with no plans to resume manned space flight in the near future.  As a man who was once a boy that gazed in wonderment toward the heavens and marveled at the notion that a human being might be drifting about in the stars above me, this decision breaks my heart.  As a father, this decision causes me great concern for the state of the world in which my children are growing up.

As art and art appreciation declines in our schools and greater society, and as science takes a backseat to budgets, politics, and suspicion, I fear that we are closing the most potent doors to wonder that we as human beings have to offer our children.

What so many people seem to misunderstand about science is the fact that the thirst for all scientific exploration and discovery stems from a deep sense of wonder; about the universe, about the world, about humanity . . . about life.  Art, also, stands in direct relation to the exploration of the universe.  Great art is filled with wonder.  All art tells some kind of story.  Science tells compelling stories.  All stories are explorations of some aspect of being alive in the universe.  Art is not for the intellectual few, even “difficult” art.  Art, like science, is for the curious and for the people who wonder.

Our national Space Program, like the art in our culture, is a direct product of wonder.  Launching a manned space shuttle into the void of space is a culmination of a century of Grand Ideas.  Here is what troubles me.  Our world is in a state of crisis.  In the midst of national and world economic woes, we are whittling away at the resources that allow us to maintain the curiosity, the problem solving and the deep connection that Grand Ideas afford us.  Science is mistrusted, students are not learning, art is increasingly marginalized,  . . . and politicians everywhere are proposing national cuts to both education and art spending on a pretty grand scale.  Education is looked upon less and less as a laboratory of intellectual and ethical exploration, and more and more as a training program to prepare one for life in the grind of the workplace.  Aren’t we better than this?  Do we really only see ourselves and the children we are parenting as future cogs in an economic machine?

I am less interested in the political ramifications of this, and more interested in why we, as human citizens, are allowing it to happen.  What happens when art and science, our two most effective vehicles for the cultivation of lifelong curiosity and discovery, are devalued and put aside for the sake of politics and temporary economic stability?  At what, exactly, will our children stare with wide eyes?  Their paychecks?  Their iphones?

With no visible space program, and no one like Carl Sagan or Jim Henson publicly advocating for the astonishing wonder inherent in the exploration of the scientific and the artistic, where do our children rest their curious eyes?  What is fueling the wonder?

As I sit with my six year old, hunched over a book called “Space, Stars and The Beginning Of Time; What the Hubble Saw,” I cannot help but look at him, and look to our present, crowded, mistrustful, overstimulated world, think of the decline of art, consider our present willingness to spend hundreds of dollars on emptyheaded entertainment, think of the end of the Space Program and worry what is in store for he and his baby sister, their world and their natural, human sense of wonder.

(*This post was adapted from a post I published earlier on my theatre company’s blog.)