- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

What’s the Difference Between Learning an Art and a Science?

What’s the difference between learning physics and painting? Well, on the surface, almost everything is different. Physics uses math, painting uses brushstrokes. Physics requires abstract thinking, painting requires concrete perception.

But, at a deeper level, learning painting and physics has a lot of similarities. They both involve concepts (force, composition), skills (calculus, color mixing) and are probably learned best through practice.

If you look at this high-level picture, learning a lot of different subjects starts to look similar. The content of the subject may be completely different, but the process of learning is eerily similar.

However, there is one important difference between learning painting and learning physics, and I think it’s important because it’s a distinction that tends to divide most subjects: what is the role of the teacher?

How Important is a Teacher for Self-Education?

Having a good teacher for physics is important. A good teacher can make the subject easier to understand. They can introduce the lessons so that you build concepts in the right order. In short, having a good teacher is always good.

However, when learning a subject like physics, what you end up learning shouldn’t depend on the teacher. Different teachers may teach different parts of the subject, but you won’t get conflicting advice. One teacher won’t tell you that F=ma, only for another to tell you that F=mv. Physics just doesn’t work that way.

When learning an art, in contrast, the teacher’s style changes not just how you learn, but what you learn. Some teachers might push you to paint more realistically, while others may push you towards abstract expressionism.

This suggests an important distinction. When learning a science, the content of the subject is objective and constant. The goal of the teacher is to reach the same understanding as everyone else. When learning an art, the content of the subject and the teacher aren’t separable. While teachers don’t vary completely (otherwise, there wouldn’t be anything to learn), they differ enough that choosing whom you learn from also determines, to a large extent, what you end up learning.

Is It an Art or a Science?

These features of a subject permit an interesting way of splitting up the world of knowledge into arts and sciences.

Arts are those subjects where the teachers have a particular style that not only influences how they teach, but what they teach. Take a different teacher and you’ll learn different strategies, styles and processes.

Sciences are those subjects where teachers may use different methods to teach, but the subject is ultimately the same. Differences in what is learned must amount to differences in the selection of subtopics.

Under this measure, which subjects are arts and which are sciences?

Physics, obviously, is a science. Painting, obviously, is an art. Business, self-improvement and meditation are mostly arts. Law, history and economics are mostly sciences.

Some subjects have a public contention between ideas. Economists, for instance, debate the macroeconomics of Hayek [1] and Keynes [2]. But if you take two different economics classes on Keynes, you’ll learn the same things (perhaps with an addition of the professor’s opinion about whether or not Keynes was right).

This standardization of a subject tends to make most academic disciplines closer to sciences, by this distinction. Even contentious fields like philosophy or literature, often agree on some basic ideas and standards, reducing the influence of a teacher’s preference.

But many, if not most, of the real-world things people want to learn are mostly arts. Any study in the subject related to “how should I live my life?” will inevitably vary dramatically depending on whom you choose to teach you. The professional skills most people would like to develop tend to fall closer to arts than sciences, simply because if you can codify a subject, far more people will possess those same skills, and thus they can’t become the pinnacle of achievement.

Selecting a Teacher to Learn From

The implication of this distinction is that, when learning a science, your main goal should be to learn from the person you understand the most. What you learn shouldn’t differ dramatically, so you’ll end up benefiting more from better instruction.

When you’re learning an art, in contrast, selecting teachers is also critical of what you want to end up learning. Studying under different people will push you into different directions in your growth on the subject.

Sometimes, when I’m learning an art, I look for teachers who are strong in areas I’m weak. One of my current favorite painting teachers [3] is particularly good at composition, something I’m less good at.

Other times, I might look to a teacher who has a style which resonates with my own. When learning about business, I’m more inclined to Ramit Sethi [4] than Chris Guillebeau [5], even though they are both great at what they do, simply because the former has characteristics which align more with my own thinking about how to run a business.

Unfortunately, this also means learning arts is more difficult than learning sciences. A science can be tackled with many different entry points, all leading to the same destination. An art, in contrast, may have very different destinations depending on whom you choose to study from. Therefore, it sometimes pays to make the extra effort to seek out the best teacher.

What are you learning right now? Is it more art or science? What made you choose the teacher you did? Share your thoughts in the comments!