In November I wrote a letter to the Guardian about Gove’s plans to marginalise the arts in education. This is how it came out in the Guardian:
Gove and his lot are stuck in the realm of the 3Rs. Today the information.world is an increasingly seamless matrix of visual, verbal and aural – TV, the internet, texting and tweeting- and the arts are at the centre. Children have to learn how to understand, judge and use the new means with the old. Meantime the Govites arrange chairs on the deck of the Good Ship Education without any idea what seas they are sailing into.
As edited I thought this sounded brusque, out of context, and close to gobbledegook, What I actually wrote was this:
The central problem is much larger than ‘the marginalisation of cultural subjects’. It is that Gove and his lot are stuck in the realm of the 3 R’s, if not the Trivium & Quadrivium. Life has moved on: for a child growing up today the information world is an increasingly seamless matrix of the visual, verbal and aural. The world is Television, the Internet, the mobile phone, texting and tweets, and the ‘Arts’ are at the centre, not at the periphery. Children have to learn how to understand, judge, and successfully use the new means with the old. Meantime the Govites continue to arrange chairs on the deck of the Good Ship Education without any idea what seas they are
It seems to me important to expose & put the skids under Gove, the worst education secretary of my lifetime: he has, so far as I can see, no experience of teaching, and no understanding of education, but is entirely undeterred, driven by political ambition and a primitive theory of learning. Milk-snatching aside, Margaret Thatcher when she was education minister at least listened to her civil servants and went out and batted for them. Peter Wilby (Guardian Mon 28 Jan) writes that “Gove alone [of ministers with big projects] can look forward to completing his project by the election, largely because he ignores almost all advice from professionals.” I have been baffled by the way in which Gove has been allowed to rejig the whole education system, and by the apparently numb immobility of the Labour Party, which should have been fighting and obstructing every inch of the way. Gove’s deforms will have to be rectified after the next election using up time energy and scarce money. There is at least some evidence of resistance in the education Ministry – the Guardian (Tues 29 Jan., p.9) writes: “Gove.. has told friends civil servants have blocked policy initiatives…” Thank God for that, then.
It is probably worth while trying to spell out what I was trying to say in my letter. The information world which I grew up in (the ‘fourties and ‘fifties) was moved along by conversation, books, daily papers, the cinemas, the telephone and the radio – the last of these marking a radical change from the Victorian era. Television was just beginning to penetrate, (though I did not begin to absorb a television culture until I was in my thirties). The next generation grew up with Television as a given. Radio, television and the telephone have accelerated the speed of circulation of information, which with contemporary technology moves from its source almost instantaneously, and is then disseminated very quickly. An atrocity in (say) Syria is photographed on a mobile phone, sent somewhere, and spreads in minutes rather than hours. The problem now is filtering out the relevant from the information overload, and this is done, not by a small band of journalists, but by everyone in reach – (you might almost say by The People).
” Our efficiency in living our lives as ordinary human beings depends on what we do with this bombardment of information. … [This] involves ignoring some of it, seizing the rest and interpreting it in the light of past experience in order to make as good a guess as possible about what is going to happen” The quotation comes from Jane Abercrombie’s fine 1960 study The Anatomy of Judgement, compelling reading for teachers. But the bombardment has increased exponentially in the mean time.
Apart from the increased velocity of information and ease of access to it, one major change has been in the amount of visual information available. In the past if we wanted for example to look at the work of a painter, we had to find a book paper or magazine which reproduced the work: now we can find examples on the screen in reasonable resolution in seconds. And this applies also to newsphotos, video clips, maps, monuments, scenery and so on. In the past visual information of this sort was usually presented in a verbal context (a photograph illustrating a newspaper article, for instance, or a clip of film in a news programme): the visual was moderated by the verbal. Nowadays it is just as likely to be the other way round: the commentator tries to elucidate meaning out of clips of amateur video of events as they happen. In an interesting reversion the sequence of frames which when speeded up creates film has now become a form in its own right as the increasingly accepted graphic novel. – a procession of freeze-frames with added verbal elements. What used to be called Comics. Non-verbal sound was always used to point up language on radio and in film. We all know simple sequences of action which become sinister or happy depending on the sound we are experience at the same time, to take a simple example, and this information, sound including music, increasingly penetrates the other forms, determining their meaning, at the same time as music takes up far more of our communal consciousness.
Today’s children grow up in this visual/verbal/aural soup: to them this is the normal universe. Of course they need to be able to think, express themselves and to use appropriate languages, and of course they need to understand mathematical language and the concepts of science – that is a given. But they will do a poor job of interpreting the information world if they do not understand colour, shape, representational systems, sequence, sound, and music. The way that you develop a real understanding of these areas is by the path of making. Awareness comes out of struggling to do things and make things. Observation, demonstration and commentary can help, but there is no substitute for direct experience, and making requires equipment, time and dedicated teachers. Learning through making is far deeper and more resiliant than learning through memorisation.
But the information environment is, in current parlance, a virtual one. It does not involve the full physical force of the body, our delight in our animal powers. We don’t denigrate the thinking, imaginative part of ourselves to say that it should not be allowed to lose touch with its corrective. the experience of interaction with the physical world. William Morris wisely said that we are most ourselves when our animal self is most accepted: at the other end of the scale is the perceived dichotomy which so tormented Robert Browning, between the thinking person and the man of action.
It’s difficult to see where the idea of ‘soft’ subjects comes from, other than blind ignorance and stupidity, which I suppose is the easy explanation. TS Eliot said “No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job” and by the same token, to do anything really well in the arts takes intelligence as well as the skill and pertinacity which is often thought of as merely ‘aptitude’ and written off as mindless. Any study of the great artists shows that their thinking is incisive and powerful. The intellectual content of the arts is not inferior to that of Languages, History or Maths,
though it is somewhat different. At the same time, although an ability to draw, construct, dance or cook will not get you into Oxbridge, it will joyfully accompany you through life, which does point up some of the limitations of those august academic institutions and the thinking which allegedly flows from them.
Learning through doing, contrariwise, is the great teaching tradition the Arts subjects give to education, which adds another dimension to the life of the body, the achievement of ‘sport’ or ‘games’. Nor should these areas be somehow segregated from the rest of primary and secondary education: the object of ‘games’ is not primarily to prevent children from becoming fat slobs (though you might think so to hear politicians talk): it is to engender and encourage delight in the power, flexibility and grace of the human body. Using ones body to do things is one of the joys of life, no less than the satisfaction of using ones mind: though we can for the sake of argument describe these two activities as different, we make a major mistake if we think of them as separate. Separation and categorisation are the watchwords of Govism.
Today the arts and activity subjects are central to education for the world as it actually is. Anyone who needs reminding of the nature of Gove should re-read the first two chapters of Dickens’ Hard Times. We have met him before: his name is Gradgrind. Go Gove and what you get is the boy Bitzer. We and our children deserve better than that.