The Dangerous Game of Subject Hierarchy

It’s a few months since Nicky Morgan gave a speech in which she told the audience that children who chose Arts or Humanities subjects were making choices that would ‘hold them back for the rest of their lives’. She then argued in a separate speech for the case that universities should be judged on the amount of tax that their graduates pay in the future. Let me just hold back the spewing vitriol that I feel for the hypocrisy of that statement given the number of rich people paying little or no tax at all….There, swallowed.

It all forms part of an ongoing narrative that we have seen from Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Nick Gibb and Nicky Morgan over the past five or so years which began with the devaluing of Arts subjects as the EBacc was promoted. As a direct result of that accountability measure we saw a 14% drop in the uptake of Arts subjects in schools. And as if this was not bad enough, in schools serving the most deprived children (who won’t get Arts provided by parents paying for musical tuition or sending them to ballet classes, or taking them to art galleries), there was a 23% reduction in the offer of Arts subjects at GCSE. Since this government came to power, teacher training places in the Arts have been decimated with some of the finest institutions closing their courses altogether. And on what basis or grounds are the assumptions that Arts subjects are either soft or worthless made? On mere prejudice it would seem.

In January, the government released figures showing that the Creative Industries were contributing £8.8 million per HOUR to the British economy. In fact since 2008 while the overall economy has grown by 5.4%, these industries have grown by a whopping 15.6%. Not all people working in these industries are artists of course, often they are scientists working alongside designers and artists to bring visions to fruition. This is not a case of Arts versus Science, but of Arts with Science, an argument made by the Stem to Steam campaign and by a variety of stakeholders, including, interestingly, the Chinese government. For all the noise made about China’s PISA performances in Maths and Science, the education system there is turning to the Arts for inspiration.

We are in danger of eliminating high quality arts and design programmes from our school curricula at the very time that the most forward thinking organisations and countries are promoting them. We may well live to regret this in 10 years’ time. But it isn’t even the economy exposing the lunacy and hypocrisy of this line of thinking. There are cracks all over government rhetoric. Take the following policies and beliefs promoted by this coalition government:-

“We want state schools to offer what private schools offer”

If we have a little look at this year’s male oscar nominees we’ll see that of the two English actors up for Best Actor, one attended Harrow and the other Eton. Eton has supplied several lead actors over the past few years. This is not to bash the private sector but to point out that when you invest in theatre spaces, a full time director, stage carpenter, costume designer, lighting and sound technicians and provide your pupils with dozens of opportunities to perform, you’re probably going to produce some pretty good talent. Why don’t we hear politicians demanding better theatre facilities and drama activities so that we can compete with the private sector? Eh?

“We want to build character, resilience and grit.”

Taking an idea from conception through research and improvisation, repeated failure, confusion, more failure to successful outcome is pretty much what all arts disciplines put children through on a daily basis. In addition, the wide ranging benefits of learning a musical instrument, or regularly reading a book (yes, people, literature is an art though under Morgan’s regime, we’d have no more writers) are well known. So why on earth would we disparage the subjects that build the very qualities in children that we are now creating awards for? Eh?

“We want children to know the best that has been said and done – heritage and culture matter”

The Arts hold you back. So it will no longer be necessary to study Shakepeare, or poetry, to listen to music, to look at art. Picasso, Rembrandt, Mozart (ooh imagine measuring his worth by his tax contribution, dying as he did, a pauper), Van Gough (no ear and no tax either), Keats….all useless. The problem with this haphazard, anti-intellectual, reasonless thinking is that you end up undermining the very things you say you value. How do you square your insistence on learning poetry by rote with undermining the value of the Arts? And as for the Humanities, well ‘Lest we forget’ seems to have been forgotten. The past? It holds you back. Eh?

And then, let’s just go back to that silly tax idea shall we? Ask any scientist working in a lab on cancer research what they earn. It’s a pittance. And all those art therapists, working with traumatised refugee children? They earn barely enough to pay tax at all. Is their work worthless? Based on a tax bill, is a Hollywood actor worth more than a teacher? A nurse? The stupidity of the idea is so ridiculous, that I have to leave the comment to John Cleese.

And finally. Let’s consider something else far more profound than any of the above. There is a reason that the arts have evolved along with all other human capabilities over the tens of thousands of years we have been on the planet. Since man decided to leave his mark on the walls of caves we have seen the overwhelming desire to find symbolic and representative forms of expression in order to understand, process and communicate our experiences. This need to interpret is writ deep in the human psyche. Let’s imagine for a moment that we eradicated our love of the Arts. That they disappeared from our notions of humanity. We would be diminished as a species. We would see the depletion of imagination – a quality that has been part of our survival strategy for generations. We would lose our concepts of beauty and appreciation of difference, becoming less empathetic, less creative, less expressive. Who would want to see this world? To see human beings evolve in a direction that strips an appreciation and interpretation of beauty and wonder from their lives? Not me.

10 thoughts on “The Dangerous Game of Subject Hierarchy

  1. Interestingly many of the Bafta nominees where Etonians,who sang the praises of the state of the art theatre facilities provided at the school.

    The old adage of price of everything and value of nothing applies by the bucket load here. It applies equally to the value of both scientific discovery and also artistic endeavour.

  2. “We would lose our concepts of beauty and appreciation of difference, becoming less empathetic, less creative, less expressive. Who would want to see this world? To see human beings evolve in a direction that strips an appreciation and interpretation of beauty and wonder from their lives? Not me.”

    Me neither, Debra. The problem is, we are not presently the ones who will make the decisions that will determine the future content of education and influence young people through the type and quality of education provision they encounter on their journey. It will be the same Philistines that are cocking up the system now with their half-brained, ill-conceived short-term ‘solutions’ to the most important facet of human development outside of the family. Education is too important to remain in under the influence of political dogma or individual whim.

    I believe the profession is poised, like no time in its past, to deliver a curricular and pedagogical transformation that will make education fit for future purpose BUT ONLY if politicians can be persuaded to relinquish their control over education governance. Join me in calling for the establishment of a National Commission for Education. Such a development would open up a new era in the development of our nation.

    Thanks again for a very courageous, moving and thought provoking piece.

  3. Cannot agree more with Debra, I find the lack of vision, the paucity of understanding of this government deeply, deeply and fundamentally depressing,. So much so that I for one am contemplating an exit strategy to get me out of this hideous and destructive drive for mediocrity and failure. Presumably the good and the great of the government send their children to the private sector where the Arts still carry weight!

    1. Absolutely. It seems to me that all this government (and to an extent the last one too) have done is drive the system to delivering a lowest common denominator education system. Such a pity.

  4. Politicians, who have never worked in school, fail to realise that not all children are the same, they need different subjects and teachers to inspire their learning. If they are forced to learn poetry by rote they will never look at another poem, dissecting books to analyse the language does not make them read more books, I’ve never read a Thomas Hardy book since school! But like everything with government….if you can’t measure it it doesn’t count, and you can’t measure the positive impact of the arts. Improving self esteem, teamwork, overcoming shyness, working with older or younger students, adaptability…..can’t measure…has no worth. That we are simply throwing away the talent of thousands is the greatest tragedy, shame on them.

  5. A generation without arts and humanities but with mechanics and science will be a generation that doesn’t defeat oppressive régimes by debate but by shooting and bombing them to oblivion. Perhaps in some respects that can’t come soon enough.

    1. I think it’s quite a leap Roy to assume that all mathematicians and scientists have destructive intent and all artists and humanities specialists are benevolent. Hitler was an Art student after all.

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