This blog is in response to Martin Robinson’s brilliant piece on arts education “Does Nicky Morgan Really Value the Arts?” I am not going to be able to do his views or prose justice but I am grateful to him for provoking the line of thought below.
Martin captures the gap between the the view of arts education contributing to an understanding of what it is to be human and an ideological belief that humans and human relationships are defined by the market and therefore the purpose of education is to create better consumers. I agree with Martin’s argument but am uncertain as to where that leaves me.
Nicky Morgan’s view of the Arts as, along with everything else, having importance in the context of the economy and being best organised by the mechanism of the market is hardly new. For 40 years UK governments have pursued policies designed to increase consumption in order to drive economic growth. Irrespective of party, policy has been underpinned on the belief that 1) the needs of the economy are tied into removing obstacles to the function of markets and 2) improvement to public services is achieved by creating markets. Education has changed significantly as a result (although I’d argue that there is a lot more change to come) and arts education has been impacted on as much as, and more negatively than, most other provision. Even though I agree with Martin Robinson, I cannot change policy towards arts education through the ballot box because the only other party likely to form a government shares Nicky Morgan’s views.
There is concensus that human beings are defined by relationship. As practice of traditional religion has collapsed, the focus has moved from human relationships to a transcendental God(s) to a focus on relationships between people. Consumption has been part of that relationship since the first examples of bartering. What has changed is the introduction and acceptance of a belief that the relationship between buyer and seller is the only valid mechanism for human interaction. Previous ideas of human relationship based on learning (parenthood, vocation, sharing, discussing, exploring), making (manufacture, work, repair, creation), relaxing (holiday as a break from activity, entertaining each other) have been abandoned or changed through the promotion of consumption. Hence Nicky Morgan seeing the arts as best exemplified by the RSC and One Direction – groups of people who sell a product to an audience.
If consumption has always existed perhaps its predominance as the basis for all relationship is not a bad thing. There have certainly been improvements since my childhood- regenerated cities, cheaper goods, technological advance. Over a longer period, violence between individuals and warfare between countries has been regulated and in Europe diminished. Two hundred years Germany and Greece may have more readily resorted to warfare to resolve a debt. Although the people of Greece are desperately unhappy that their government felt forced to give in at least young men are not dying on the battlefield because of the issues. It is debatable whether the market was really at the heart of these improvements but I have to be open to the possibility. The problem I have with narrowing our understanding of what it is to be human to a focus on our role as consumers (and what it is to be a country to whether we can feasibly repay huge debts) is that in doing so we have made ourselves more efficient, materially better off but less happy.
I believe that education should be about what it is to be human in a broad sense. The reason why the subjects taught in schools have changed little since Victorian times is because each discipline brings with it specific knowledge, skills and understanding that contribute in a unique way to human development. If, as a primary teacher, I choose not to teach art, because the lessons mess up the classroom, children miss out on the opportunity to develop the ability to express themselves in specific ways. More contentiously, if I choose not to teach RE as I cannot see the point in a secular society, children are not given the opportunity to develop knowledge of significant worldviews and consider their own lives and beliefs through these lenses. What fills the void left by my decision not to teach RE (against a law that is unenforced), is not neutral but the prevailing values of society whichever the moment are tied up with happiness being achieved through consumption and material possession.
In my current role, I am responsible for an intitial teacher education programme. I am held accountable by OfSTED. My position is privileged. To ignore (or work against) the content and underpinning beliefs of government policy would be unfair on the students. Instead I work with my colleagues to design and deliver a course that meets utilitarian needs and is compliant to legislation while at the same time challenging students to be able to articulate the unique contribution of all ten subjects (or seven areas of learning) to human development. In doing so I promote a balance in education that includes, and values, humanities and the arts for their own sake and not just as a way of developing young people who will consume the products of creative industries. If I were in a primary classroom next year, I would seek to find the balance and breadth of curricula that best allowed the children in my care to develop through gaining knowledge, understanding and skills.