A work in progress…
Discussing the Accessibility of Arts Education at a Higher Education Level
Part 1: Arts and Academia
‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’ – William Morris
From the first public address to the Trades Guild of Learning on December 4th, 1877.
The lecture was titled ‘The Decorative Arts, Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress’, and was later published under the title ‘The Lesser Arts’. As a teacher in the performing arts, the revised name of the piece rings a particularly tired and poignant bell as we relentlessly promote the numerous benefits of an education in the arts. Educators are constantly being challenged to explore imaginative and engaging pedagogy to lure the interests of their students, yet it seems the very basis of this fundamental approach to engagement, the very core of the process, creative arts itself, is still viewed as a hobby by most. Is it not possible that young adults can excel both practically and academically as they progress through performing arts education? Can it not be considered that the intrinsically valuable skills moulded in higher education can be formed with equal, if not greater, success in a naturally creative and stimulating environment? All too often I cross certain boundaries whilst gently pushing a student’s understanding of music theory, and they freeze. It becomes too mathematical, and like clockwork they laugh nervously and tell me they can’t do maths; ‘That’s why I’m a singer’, they say, and I reply that they are so much more than that. I remind them that every day they study texts in the form of song lyrics or scripts, and that they analyse the characters within them. They practise literature skills, critical thinking, empathy and compassion with every verse they read. I remind them that every day they show exceptional bravery as they convincingly mask their vulnerabilities in front of an audience. I remind them that not only must they be emotionally aware, brave and talented, but they must also possess the very same academic skills of their peers deemed more intelligent because their preference lay with predetermined core subjects. My learners write essays on Shakespearean texts, yet they tell me they’re ‘only singers’. My learners can create poetry through rap, art through movement and music that tells a thousand stories, yet a lifetime of desperate contortion to a mould they do not fit has stripped value from these gifts.
A gentle tug on the fragile thread of my learners experience quickly unravels a worrying pattern of conformation or concern throughout their secondary studies. The individual experience is almost identical, with a polyphonic chorus of frustrated voices chanting the words ‘safer options’ as they recall the advice given by school careers advisers. It is difficult to perceive any particular strand of study or employment as a foolhardy or safe pathway in our current economic environment, but the frustrations felt as a performing arts educator at the devaluing of our cultural input are surely echoed by my peers nationwide.
Sir Kenneth Robinson, an international adviser on education in the arts, stated ‘The arts, sciences, humanities, physical education, languages and maths all have equal and central contributions to make to a student’s education.’ He continues to say that the entire idea of subjects must be reassessed, focusing on a range of disciplines that prepare individuals for lifelong learning rather than memorising facts polarised by labels such as ‘core subjects’. Dr Pamela Burnard of the University of Cambridge was quick to respond, pointing out that the United Kingdom has invested millions of pounds into creative partnerships that implement initiatives in both primary and secondary schools to encourage creativity. Burnard believes that the volume of artistic input in our school system sets us far in front of our American counterparts. However, the problem does not necessarily come from a lack of opportunities to explore the arts, but rather the disconnect between the core subjects like maths or science, and the creative arts, which seem to sit at opposite ends of an unspoken spectrum of specialities. That is to say, that whilst it is a positive step to fund a day of acting or poetry workshops, the learners who have connected with the experience are again cast adrift when the methodology does not filter into the classroom on their return to their desk. This fragmented approach to the arts only conditions the belief that creativity should be enjoyed periodically, as an enjoyable pastime or a reward at the end of more serious study. Several of my learners recall being strongly advised to refrain from their extra-curricular stage schools or evening practise until their standardised exams were over. When one particularly determined performer pointed out that these sessions were helping to build an impressive personal statement for future UCAS applications, a teacher recommended the summer holidays as an ideal time to pursue such interests. One can only feel utter exasperation at the message to ambitious young learners that their preferred career progression is fitting only of their free time, whilst they must make time for a predetermined specialist subject.
A 2015 article in the Independent detailed the top ten higher education establishments graduate employment rates, and six of those named were arts institutions or conservatoires. How can it then be argued that our education system is not doing a disservice to our young adult learners when ambitions to pursue such pathways are not being nurtured?
What must be accepted in order to progress positively, is that both soft and hard skills can be developed and maintained effectively through the arts. Individuals can be both creative and academic, and seeking a career in the creative or performing arts industries is not an unsafe progression, but an impressive, challenging and valuable endeavour.
It seems that we must first consider how our current situation has evolved. Horace Mann is generally considered the driving force behind schools as we know them today. Mann implemented the creation of an organised curriculum in Massachusetts in 1837, and surrounding states quickly followed suit. By 1918 attending school was compulsory in every American state and fees to do so were abolished in Great Britain. However, this can hardly be considered the creation of education. Human beings have been educated since the dawn of their very existence. Even the most basic communications between early species were intended to pass on vital skills and information gathered as essentials to survive. This learning did not take place in group settings or fixed locations, but was tailored to individuals and delivered by their relatives and peers. The information that was passed on was instinctively decided as most relevant to the individual needs, then expanded upon throughout every generation. Surely it is fair to say that these lessons delivered within individual family units stand as some of the most valuable examples of teaching in our history. Our evolution in a harsh and dangerous climate relied solely on these teachings of brain over brawn. Our continual evolution was founded in these early stages of development and has placed us at the top the hierarchical structure of mammals not because of the brute strength often valued in the animal kingdom, but by augmenting our skills and capabilities with tools. How sad then that it was soon realised it would be far more time effective to gather a large number of adults in a room and invite one adult with specific specialties coach them in subjects that a separate group of adults have deemed vital. And as the human race continues to grow and expand, the numbers in those classes continue to multiply, inevitably producing more diverse student groups with a wide range of skill sets, being shoehorned into subjects that have been taught since 1695 in Boston Latin School: reading, writing and mathematics. And how unjust that modern curriculum fails to see the irony that individually tailored education is the reason we have evolved for millions of years prior to set curriculum.
And what a travesty that young learners entering school with a natural penchant for core subjects are never forced through the horror of complete disconnect by being pushed through an arts based subject, yet those who excel in creative outlets are tied to completing their maths and English in standardised form. This completely nonsensical pattern creates a fixed mindset in our creative learners. These children are conditioned to believe that intelligence is innate from the second they enter education, and that theirs cannot be improved because they continue to fail in the subjects on which our system places value. Psychologist Carol Dweck found in her studies that students perceptions of their own abilities drastically altered their achievement levels. In other words, our education system is setting our creative learners up to fail…for life.