‘Nothing matters but life’ DH Lawrence: Women in Love
Nicky Morgan has made a speech that supports the arts in education. She begins with an understanding of what it is to be British, ‘from Shakespeare to One Direction,’ she trumpets: “This small island country has, throughout its history, punched well above its weight as the cultural capital of the world.” She talks, genuinely, of the contribution the arts have made to her life, then talks about how the Government has made arts education more rigorous:
“Our commitment to rigorous arts qualifications is also a reflection of the significant and ever increasing contribution that the creative industries make to our country, bringing in £77 billion a year, outpacing growth and job creation in many other industries. And that’s why I firmly reject any suggestion that I or this government think that arts subjects are in any way less important or less worthy than other subjects for study in school. On the contrary, for all of the reasons I’ve outlined so far, a young person’s education cannot be complete unless it includes the arts.”
She goes onto say that:
“We need to inspire a love of art, design, music, drama and culture from the very first day of young person’s education and keep it going throughout the rest of their life.”
I take her at her word, she values the arts, she sees them as a vital part of the British Values agenda and that they are important for social justice and our creative industries. I’ve no idea why she can’t make the arts a compulsory part of the Ebacc, it would be the most obvious way to show that the Government values the arts but this seems to be a step too far. Morgan goes on:
“So I hope I’ve allayed the myth that the arts, or the creative industries are in anyway held in low esteem by this government. To the contrary, my ambition is to ensure that every pupil gets a rich cultural education. Because access to the arts is the birthright of every child, regardless of background.”
I don’t think she has ‘allayed the myth’. Morgan mentions that the Ebacc is about career choice for poor children and it is clear that the arts do not fit with this utilitarian instrumentalism. Her view seems to be that the arts are about secondary utilities of British values, creative industries and One Direction which shows a huge lack of imagination… What if she thought that the arts were “The primary mode of coming to grips with the mental and moral essence of the universe…” what if she thought the arts were about investigating the metaphysical sense of what it is to be human in all its flawed possibilities? There are physical aspects to being human, of course, and without these aspects there would be no humanity at all but what makes us aware of these aspects is our conscience and the arts help us be alive to the possibilities of what this conscious human being might be and also to the possibilities of ‘being’ no longer. To be or not to be?
CP Snow declared in his famous lecture: ‘The Two Cultures’ that scientists had ‘The future in their bones’ and that, ‘literary intellectuals’ were ‘natural luddites’. Snow saw: “Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.” Near the end of his talk he said: “Closing the gap between our cultures is a necessity…” He wanted us to look at how we educate the young with fresh eyes, saying: “The second requirement, after capital, as important as capital, is men. That is, trained scientists and engineers… Here, unless and until the Americans and we educate ourselves both sensibly and imaginatively, the Russians have a clear edge.” He spoke in 1959 a time when the USSR was ahead in the ‘space race’ and even their dogs seemed more technologically advanced.
The time when science was looked down upon by a cultural elite has been reversed. We are now faced with an ‘elite’ in positions of power who fetishise science and technology to an almost Soviet level and see it as the way to ensure future prosperity but now instead of the Soviets we look to Singapore and the Far East as the countries to emulate.
Our scientific age, all technology, measurement and data, has lead to a need to deliver strong Science and Maths outcomes, measured and tracked by high stakes tests: ‘A measurement agenda is essential to an innovation and improvement strategy in education’ trumpets the OECD, Science boosts girl’s future earnings says Nicky Morgan. The argument goes that education should be delivered efficiently with the output measured by results and ultimately by economic performance. Even philosophy has to be justified by how it impacts on Maths! Philosophy shouldn’t need to be justified it should be included in a curriculum because it is philosophy! Plato didn’t write the Republic to improve Maths and Literacy scores, he wrote it to help us out of the cave, not to keep us there staring at dubious data shadows.
Education is being based on the idea that all young people need is a good career, measured by high earnings. This means pupils study the subjects that are ‘proven’ to have more worth than others, as Morgan puts it: “What limits career choices and holds people back, is not being given the information and advice to pick the right combination of subjects, that will open doors for their future and let pupils pursue the career of their dreams.” So we must measure our educational values by children’s dreams, well those dreams that are shaped by the Ebacc. Beware of this measuring… we could end up in a situation akin to the famous tractor counting at Red Square: Brezhnev watches the tractors as they drive past and sees that all is good, then later, out of his sight, many of the tractors fall apart… but rather than improve the quality the Soviets just built more tractors and counted ‘more’ tractors and compared the numbers to other countries and saw that they were building more and therefore all was good. Education should be about qualities of life not about numbers and the State’s idea of what a child’s dream job might be.
Joseph Conrad wrote: “…Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential–their one illuminating and convincing quality–the very truth of their existence. The artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts… [Scientists] speak authoritatively to our common-sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom to our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism–but always to our credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: with the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims.
It is otherwise with the artist.
Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities–like the vulnerable body within a steel armor. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring–and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition–and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation–and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity–the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”
Up against the desire to prepare children for the world of work, the wooly liberalism of ‘art’ where words like ‘delight’ and ‘wonder’ are bandied about, things get a bit fuzzy and difficult to measure. Some people in the Arts echo Morgan’s words and try to make their subjects sound tough and relevant saying that studying the arts will get you a job in the ‘cultural industries’ and also that the CBI want people who can sing in a choir, paint with watercolours and dance a pirouette, but cultural industry is an oxymoron, education in the arts should not be the servant of industry but the bedrock of culture.
At one level universal experiences of being human are the same – birth, death, sex, love, but it is the expression of our lives that makes us who we are, the world presents itself to us and is, as Roger Scruton put it: “Imbued with our way of knowing it.” Our conscience is shaped by opinions, feelings and artefacts that attempt to understand it.
We understand and communicate through a glass darkly with each other because each of us and the way we think about our world is flawed, and those who shout ‘one direction’ the loudest may sometimes be the most flawed of all. The arts are an essential part of the study of ‘the best that has been thought said and done’ but this idea will always involve conflict – because the best is diverse and in that diversity we have contradictions, between and within disciplines. We ought to introduce children to the conflict across the two (or indeed more) cultures and the best schools do.
Man makes his different ways of being and education is one way of handing that culture on. If someone were to say: ‘No! That is not the best way to hand that culture on because it is does not lead to children getting jobs in global finance and waving the Union Flag whilst whistling One Direction songs,’ then we have a problem. The gentle philistinism of Nicky Morgan is so ‘common-sensical’ that people can easily slip into the world of scientism, thinking that the outcome of a ‘great’ job and improving Britain’s place in a global competition are the purpose of schooling.
Arts education must be experienced in an inefficient and humane way. Morgan is right when she says that: “A young person’s education cannot be complete unless it includes the arts,” but not because they are an articulation of British Values, a way of making money through Creative Industries, or a way of boosting Maths scores. Rather the arts should be central to the curriculum of every school because the discussion about what it is ‘to be human,’ is our flawed attempt to understand our conscious selves, and long may we find this aspect of our lives impossible to quantify.