Battle for the arts and minds

For too long we've been in thrall to the notion of education as an economic tool, writes teacher Alistair McConville. Let's seize the opportunity of a new term of government to stop moulding children into potential workers and start growing them into rounded human beings
8th May 2015, 1:00am


Battle for the arts and minds

Towards the end of his life, Charles Darwin wrote a striking paragraph in his autobiography, describing with regret the narrowness of his intellectual focus.

"If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

This poignant moment of self-realisation should be read and considered deeply by those in government for the next five years. For too long now, we have been shackled to an understanding of schooling as a necessary preparation for adulthood and, more particularly, for the workplace. We have unwittingly moved towards the view expressed by Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby that "life is much more successfully looked at from a single window", and that the "well-rounded man" is "that most limited of all specialists".

The curriculum in England has shifted in focus to an increasingly tight core, and is dominated by the outcomes of an ever-narrower assessment regime. The rhetoric surrounding it is frequently instrumentalist in tone. As a society, we have to seize the opportunity of a new term of government to ask ourselves if this is what we want and, if not, what education should really be for.

A life of leisure

It's useful to look at how we got here. In Darwin's wistful words there is a recognition that he should have made time to enjoy the full spectrum of human goods, and that not doing so has been a considerable sacrifice of his experience. In this he shares with Aristotle a vision of life in which education is about enabling "noble use of our leisure"; leisure equated here not with idleness, or loaded with guilty associations of non-productivity, but standing in proud opposition to the notion of "total work", as philosopher Josef Pieper describes it in his book Leisure: the basis of culture.

Plato, too, recognises the danger of an imbalance: "But the gods, taking pity on mankind, laid down the succession of feasts to restore them from their fatigue, and gave them the Muses and Apollo their leader and Dionysus, so that nourishing themselves in festive companionship they should again stand upright and erect."

This idealistic vision of breadth of learning, and enjoyment of the arts and humanities for their own sake, were core assumptions in Western approaches to education for more than a millennium. For the Greeks (and their Western successors), there had to be an immersion in the "liberal arts" - the broad range of human activities that have a liberating and civilising effect on those who undertake them, enabling a richer and more enjoyable experience of life. This stood in firm contrast to the "servile arts" - those things necessary to earn one's daily bread. Training for a profession was a means to an end, the end being the rounder participation in human goods: art, drama, philosophy, music, sport. To place too much emphasis on the servile arts was to accept a diminished existence.

Of course, this view of the purpose of education seems idealistic from our perspective. And it stems from a time when aristocratic Athenians could afford to devote themselves to higher pleasures while slaves did their dirty work. But the inspiring vision of a shared immersion in "the best that has been thought and said in the world" (to cite poet and theorist Matthew Arnold) remained the inspiration for educationalists until the modern age. Reformers aspired to make this a universal entitlement, with education enriching the life of the working person beyond the drudgery of their job, rather than being a preparation for it.

Then the Victorians happened. Sir Ken Robinson, whose impassioned TED talk in favour of a broader and more creative curriculum has attracted 32 million views online, has shown how Victorian culture and the emerging need for certain types of managerial skills in the face of rapid industrialisation led to a dramatic shift in the curriculum.

Indeed, the three Rs, which became and have remained the cornerstone of educational policy, were in pre-Victorian times not reading, writing and arithmetic but reading, wroughting and arithmetic. In other words, crafting things as well as developing literacy and numeracy. The value of art, craft and creativity was downgraded to develop bureaucracies around mechanised processes.

Victorian work ethic

Not much has changed since: education has remained an economic tool. If anything, this is now more the case than ever. A culture obsessed with measurement, evidence and accountability has, for now at least, made it harder to argue for the intrinsic value of learning, even though the evidence points to intrinsic motivations fuelling better outcomes.

I would like to offer the argument all the same. I believe that, as a society, we need to look again at what we want education to do and what we think it should be for. We have moved too far from the educational vision of the pre-Victorian era and this is having a negative impact on our students, not just in school but potentially for the rest of their lives.

One pragmatic line of attack is to point to evidence showing how much liberal arts can positively affect future employability. Making the case on this front is important, since this is the language that opponents of this approach to education best understand.

We should begin by pointing out that the separation of liberal and servile arts is a false dichotomy. In fact, they are mutually supportive; for example, US research has shown that high school maths and literacy scores rise in proportion to the amount of exposure students have to arts education across their time in school (bit.lyStudentsArtsStudy).

And, in 2008, a study of scientists found that the most professionally successful were significantly more likely to spend some of their time on productive arts and crafts pursuits, with the resulting skills being of direct professional benefit (bit.lyScientistsArts).

`Conveyor belt' system

The business community offers a similar argument. In its publication First Steps: a new approach for our schools (bit.lyFirstStepsReport), the CBI makes the economic case for a broader, more holistic approach to education, in which the development of a wide variety of dispositions, including creativity, is at the heart of producing people suited for a dynamic, ever-changing world of work.

The CBI defines "character" far more broadly than mere grit and resilience (the restrictive language used in much recent political discussion), with desirable qualities including curiosity and enthusiasm. Research conducted by Harvard academic Christina Hinton at my school, Bedales, shows that these traits are also best stimulated by encouraging intrinsic motivation for learning.

CBI director-general John Cridland bemoans our narrow definition of success and the "conveyor belt", one-size-fits-all mentality prevalent in our constantly contracting system, as well as the failure of a league-table culture to account for the development of individual strengths. A decentralised, flexible system that values more than measurable academic achievement is necessary to nurture the sort of citizens required by a flourishing economy, Cridland argues.

Backing also comes from the Warwick Commission's report Enriching Britain: culture, creativity and growth (bit.lyWarwickCommissionCulture). It points out the relationship between access to a rich arts and creative education and a flourishing economic and social environment, attributing pound;77 billion (5 per cent of the UK economy) to creative industries, which employ 1.7 million people.

The report argues: "The key to enriching Britain is to guarantee a broad cultural education for all (through arts skills acquisition, participation in arts and cultural events and enhanced appreciation), an education and a curriculum that is infused with multidisciplinarity, creativity and enterprise and that identifies, nurtures and trains tomorrow's creative and cultural talent.

"The English education system does not provide or encourage either of these priorities and this will negatively impact not just on the future of the creative industries but on our capacity to produce creative, world-leading scientists, engineers and technologists."

Against the status quo

There are reasons to hope that this message may be getting through in England. Nicky Morgan's hard-line rhetoric from her early days as education secretary about the omnipotence of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, and the claim that students are "held back" by excessive participation in the arts, has been significantly softened. And Tristram Hunt's assurances about the centrality of the arts under a Labour government is heartening. Both have dabbled in discussing the desirability of character development.

And there are encouraging challenges to the status quo outside the political sphere, too. Bill Lucas' recent book Expansive Education (co-authored with Guy Claxton and Ellen Spencer) is a call to broaden our collective understanding of the purposes of education, setting out a vision of disposition-based rather than skills-based learning in which the moral aspect of education is central. The longitudinal development of the whole person, the book argues, should be at the forefront of our minds when we determine how to construct an education system.

The authors offer an uplifting range of examples of disposition-based systems delivering richer outcomes, from Finland and Singapore to New Zealand and Australia, with innovations being implemented at both local and national level. The descriptions of curricular shifts - to more project-based and outdoor learning, for example - remind us that there are more engaging ways of doing things. Lucas has spoken of the need to "outflank your own government" and his Expansive Education Network aims to help schools do so within existing strictures.

Expansive Education is uplifting in its examples of alternative, richer models of learning, and I thoroughly commend its call for a paradigm shift in curriculum, pedagogy and educational aims. But I think it could go further. The book's claim, widely shared, that "education is, above all, a preparation for the future" should be heavily qualified. Of course, this is a significant component of our motivation for educating young people, but should we not place at least an equal emphasis on their enjoyment and fulfilment now, while they are still young?

The book goes on to say that education's "core purpose is to give all young people the confidence and capacity to flourish in the world they are going to inhabit". Going to inhabit? These young people inhabit the world now, and we should be at least as interested in them having a stimulating and pleasurable experience today as a decade hence.

Right here, right now

This is the key problem with our system: the way we define education is deeply flawed. Childhood is not a commodity to be invested in some unspecified future. The more we transmit the message to malleable students that their current experience is really all about their future experience, the more that mindset becomes ingrained and is carried into adulthood, when one job is thought of in terms of its utility for promotion to the next, and so on until retirement. And what is the point of retirement? To finally enjoy one's leisure? It's highly likely that it will be too late for many to switch to such a mentality after a lifetime of motivation understood in terms of the future.

Such habitual looking forward is, I believe, part of so many young people's inability to live in the moment and a factor in the anxiety epidemic. They have not been allowed to cultivate the ability to consider the lilies, enjoying today and the lessons it brings for their own sake.

For educationalists who cherish the intrinsic value of what they teach, it is a regrettable necessity to make the case for the arts and humanities in such starkly utilitarian terms. It can't help but tarnish them in my view, and as long as debate about the validity of poetry, design, music, art or dance is framed in terms of job prospects or economic contribution, then we are bound to shift young people's focus away from the appreciation of these pursuits in their own right.

If we are to debate the purposes of education, as I believe we should, we have to view students as fully fledged people with a rich range of potential, not just future economic players. We are in danger of developing a generation of young people whose view of themselves is shaped by a sense that they are not yet useful, since they are not yet in the "real world" and not yet qualified to do the only thing that really matters: get a good job.

Of course, education should be relevant to the rest of pupils' lives and prepare them for greater independence, but is this really the exclusive message we want to send them about the value we place on childhood? Because there is a good chance that they will believe us and value themselves accordingly.

Alistair McConville is a deputy headteacher at Bedales School in Hampshire

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