Anarchy in the UK: The Peculiar Value of Arts Education

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School’s Minister Nick Gibb said that: “To those who criticise our focus on academic subjects, or suggest that the EBacc is a Gradgrindian anachronism, I have a simple question: would you want your child to be denied the opportunity to study a science, history or geography, and a foreign language?” My answer to that question is an emphatic ‘NO!’ Earlier in his speech he said: “That is not to say, of course, that subjects outside the English Baccalaureate have no place in schools. The EBacc is a specific, limited measure consisting of only 5 subject areas and up to 8 GCSEs. Whilst this means that there are several valuable subjects which are not included, it also means that there is time for most pupils to study other subjects in addition to the EBacc.” He went on to talk about how the Government has and is promoting the arts in schools. Gibb talks of the need for social mobility and social justice for the poor and I could argue about whether social mobility will happen for poor kids if they all get 8 academic GCSEs but it might be something that works wonders in ten or so years time, so let’s wait…

Rather than just being ‘limited’ it seems the EBACC is limiting: ‘The most commonly withdrawn subjects are drama and performing arts, which had been dropped in nearly a quarter of schools where a subject had been withdrawn (23%), followed by art (17%) and design technology (14%).’  I don’t see this picture improving if all pupils have to take the EBACC.  The impact on the ‘Arts’ is the Government’s fault and schools fault for doing as they’re told to the letter. We need a bit of anarchy.

In a piece about University liberal education, the controversial writer Allan Bloom wrote that each student has four years in which…:

He must learn that there is a great world beyond the little one he knows, experience the exhilaration of it and digest enough of it to sustain himself in the intellectual deserts he is destined to traverse. He must do this, that is, if he is to have any hope of a higher life. The importance of these years… cannot be overestimated. They are civilisation’s only chance to get to him.

One could argue that this is hyperbole and that, for some individuals, there will be many opportunities to catch a bit of civilisation whether they have this through formal education or not, but for many school is their main chance to think. Education is about far more than eight academic subjects. Gibb knows this, the tradition since the Ancient Greeks tells us this. A great Baccalaureate should not be the product of unimaginative politicians but a celebration of the great tradition, an escape from the philistinism, that is sure to follow, in our corporate and public sphere. Education should expand us, not narrow us.

In the early 1700s the ‘Grand Tour’ had become an accepted part of education for fortunate young men, who received a rather narrow education in the Public Schools of the time. The tour, according to Christopher Hibbert:

Had been recognised as an ideal means of imparting taste and knowledge and of arousing curiosity in the mind of a youth… who was expected to return from his travels with a broadened mind as well as a good command of foreign languages, a new self-reliance and self-possession as well as a highly developed taste and grace of manner.

The grand tour took in great architecture, countryside, cafés, food, brothels, bars, sport, galleries, ballet, opera, theatre, fights, executions, libraries, cathedrals, carnivals, and great conversation, companionship and experiences; a broadening of the mind, from the sublime to the ridiculous, all life was there.

Nowadays the Public Schools of England offer a broader curriculum, though not known for executions and brothels, they are certainly, at their best, places that offer an education in which the Arts are valued. For example at Eton: “We don’t do drama just for its educational value. We do a play as a work of art, to be explored at its fullest.” In 2012 the Guardian reported that the drama department in Eton ‘Boasts a full-time designer, a carpenter and a manager, as well as a part-time wardrobe mistress. This weekend sees final studio performances of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, before the curtain goes up on Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life. Productions of Ben Hecht’s The Front Page and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys are waiting in the wings for February. The school’s director-in-residence, Rebecca Steel, is also helping to open up the world of movement and dance with productions devised in school.’

According to the Headteacher of the Independent School Bedales, Keith Budge:

“James Napier, an Old Bedalian and founder of the London Atelier of Representational Art, stresses that… a Bedales Arts and Design education offers: “The freedom to think.” This is a sentiment that chimes with the school’s educational philosophy. Bedales has always nurtured individuality, initiative and an enquiring mind.” It is this sort of language that resonates with progressive educationalists and those who are signed up to the ‘creativity’ agenda.

The current doyen  of  progressive education  Ken Robinson said here that: “I work a lot with Fortune 500 companies, and they’re always saying: “We need people who can be innovative, who can think differently.” If you look at the mortality rate among companies, it’s massive. America is now facing the biggest challenge it’s ever faced—to maintain it’s position in the world economies. All these things demand high levels of innovation, creativity, and ingenuity. At the moment, instead of promoting creativity, I think we’re systematically educating it out of our kids.”

Robinson wants to bring creativity to the aid of capitalism in crisis. This linking of the Arts, creativity, and West Coast capitalism is a heady brew, one that has been drunk entirely by David Cameron’s one time guru Steve Hilton who points out in his book ‘More Human’ that: “Creativity… is considered the most important leadership trait by global CEOs…” The commodification of creativity.

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Ken Robinson is wrong, his idea of creativity is limiting, it should not be there to serve capital it should be there to critique it or even wreck it and though it might lead to Capitalism being more successful, it’s not a given, nor should it be. Art for Art’s sake is its own justification. John Lydon became a rich man thanks to Punk, Butter and Property. Filthy Lucre it may have been, hate it and make it, and although now we have credit cards with punk iconography on them, at the time the nation was rocked by Rotten’s filth and fury. The creative artist is a dangerous type, far removed from the corporate ‘creatives’ that the 21st century skills lobby cite to justify the inclusion in the curriculum of the arts. Art in schools should not be about creating little Fortune 500 wage slaves, the arts in schools should be far more dangerous.

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In ‘After Theory’ Terry Eagleton wrote that: “[Artists] deal with works whose depth and intensity show up the meagreness of everyday life in a market-obsessed society. They are also trained to imagine alternatives to the actual. Art encourages you to fantasize and desire. For all these reasons, it is easy to see why it is students of art… rather than chemical engineering who tend to staff the barricades”

The world of art is peopled by the awkward squad. It is anarchic.

The awkward squad aren’t just from the left. Roger Scruton thinks in ‘How to be a Conservative’ that when coming into contact with great art we “Encounter a unity of experience and thought, a coming together of the sensory and the intellectual for which ‘imagination’ is the everyday name. This fact which places the meaning of aesthetic experience outside the reach of science, explains its peculiar value. In the moment of beauty we encounter meaning in immediate and sensory form: we are endorsed and justified in being here, now and alive.”

Before and after science the arts are part of a fulsome education, they are a part of what it means to be human and this is why they should be part of the curriculum and given recognition in a baccalaureate, because the arts are alive! That the arts might not be valued is a sign of what we are becoming as a nation just wanting our curriculum to satisfy an instrumentalist desire to shape future workers.

The tradition values arts and cultural education, our great independent schools value them too. We must wrest control away from Government and its dour little EBACC. As Scruton writes: “No cause is more important… than that of education, which needs to be liberated from the state and given back to society.” So schools stop moaning, take the Bacc back to its rightful place as part of the tradition and add to it, and ensure, as Scruton says, that we keep: “Present in the minds of the young those great works that created the emotional world in which they live, whether or not they are yet aware of it…” and whether they go to a posh school or not a little bit of anarchy can go a long way…

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