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The REAL reason why we need the Arts in schools

September 29, 2016






There has been another burst of interest in the way our Government’s approach to the English Baccalaureate [EBacc]  is threatening to squeeze the arts out of mainstream schooling.
What struck me is not how impoverishing this would be (it would, appallingly so), or even how one dimensional the arguments in favour of this shift are. What really worried me was that even the defenders of the arts were taking an instrumentalist, or functional, view of why it’s a bad things.
Here on TV news programmes were artists and musicians basing their argument on something called ‘jobs’. Arguments included the economic value of the ‘creative industries’ or the fact that architects need to be able to draw as well as do mathematics.
All true. But all, also, a case of meeting those who seek to marginalise the arts on their own ground. Those are people who see the primary function of education as being to equip people to perform functions in the economy – functions that ‘generate wealth’. This harks back to a paradigm I’ve looked at before – holding on to an old view of the education system as something which produces the appropriate workers ‘required’ or ‘demanded’ by industry… whilst perhaps also populating the professions too.
I agree that this is, particularly if framed in a more imaginative way, a necessary function of education – but it is not the primary one.
Pitching your argument in the midst of the territory occupied by those with whom you disagree, is not a recipe for success. Or clarity for that matter.
The primary function of education is to teach us how to BE. We need foundation skills to support this – literacy and numeracy not least. But education is about learning how to be who we are and how to manage changes in ourselves; how to learn, how to think, how to experience… and what it means to understand. That extends to understanding, empathising and communicating with others. It also involves developing the imagination and flexibility to keep stepping outside our current assumptions and trying on new ones… exploring… hypothesising.
The arts, and here I include English [and probably modern languages] taught in a certain way, support all this in a way that no other species of knowledge or activity can.
The arts equip us, via activity, to use all our resources – our senses, our emotions, our intuitions – and to become literate in our physical responses to things. They give us a full spectrum within which to create [in the broadest sense] and to witness the emerging of new experiences, new possibilities… to get used to looking emptiness and potential in the face without reaching for old habits and certainties.
Yes – these are all also useful foundations for being an engineer, a chef, a contact centre operator, a paramedic… etc, etc. Yes – they are prevalent in some professions regarded as ‘creative’. Yes – they help us to communicate better, possibly even to become more open to others’ circumstances. All of which support occupations and economic function.
But the real treasure over which the arts have stewardship is the key to awareness, insight, context and purpose. Work supports us, it helps us to support others directly or indirectly through an economy of divided labour. Work helps us, and our community, to live. But the arts remind us why we live. We don’t live to work. We don’t work just to live, in some nihilistic cycle of material subsistence. [Though you might be forgiven for thinking that some economists, business leaders and politicians still see the function of many ‘workers’ as being to do just that.]  We live to grow, and to reach towards some purpose. Without these we are unhealthy… we do not thrive… no matter what the economy, the nation, around us is doing.
Work has material outputs. But many aspects of society – if we want to take a materialist view – subtract from those outputs. They do negative work. Mental ill-health. Drug abuse. Violence inside and outside the family. Crime. Even apathy and cynicism. All of these do damage which [and I risk meeting those materialists on their own ground myself here] take resources out of the economy just as surely as if they were work-not-performed.
But these dysfunctions, far more importantly, rob that economy of its point… to support the flourishing and full self-realisation of every single one of us.
That is the point of economy and society. To promote, as Kant would have it, humanity as an end in itself.
The reason why we must not allow the EBacc to squeeze the arts out of mainstream education is that, without them, we know neither ourselves nor our purpose. Even infinite physical productivity and efficiency could never compensate for that.
Artists. Please make that point. Stand on your own shifting, fascinating, ground. If your main intended audience is Mr Gradgrind, then I am afraid that you may already have lost.
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