“What do you want to be when you grow up?”- a question for which the answer will often re-calibrate itself according to the increasing awareness of one’s own capacity; so the same child who wanted to be a pilot may eventually have to settle for something a little closer to the ground. But when these choices are limited by factors outside of aptitude and passion, and are instead constricted by funding and career prospects, perhaps we ought to stop asking our children this question. Your future exists at the end of a web of binary choices, decisions that solidify the supple, vibrant minds of youth; choices between numbers or letters, a BSc or a BA, theorist or practitioner, your future as a doctor or a duffer; the choice is yours it seems.
In a BBC survey, in which over 40% of secondary schools participated, 9 in 10 schools said that they had to cut back on lesson time, staff or facilities in at least one creative subject. This is due to an increasing pressure to have a greater emphasis on the core subjects in schools, which are already struggling with funding.
The education system has qualified itself to be likened to an industrial-scale abattoir for the imagination, producing the protein-rich, tender cuts of pure scientific brawn – no flavour. but plenty to chew on – emerging on the other end of this conveyor-belt journey intended for the efficient rearing of efficient minds. You start this conveyor-belt journey from the age of 4 or 5, you sing their rhymes, you eat their sand, and learn that your silence and obedience will be rewarded. I can remember my mates at school even placing a stiff index finger against their pursed lips, whilst they stiffened their backs, to prove their vows to silence.
With each ascending stage, you are prodded and felt for the quality of your meat. The rump are sifted out and placed in bottoms sets, lowering the risk of spoiling the filet mignon. The delinquents will probably spend most of their time discussing subjects outside of school and provocatively questioning authority – we certainly can’t have that! And if we notice any strange behaviour from one of the brighter pupils, well they must be hanging out with the wrong crowd. And the divisions between children begin to set, then grow, and soon they shall be speaking to each other behind walls of respective ignorance.
Of course, the ‘Factory model school’ is an idea that has been thoroughly discussed, especially in America, but most often in the context of producing docile subjects who will fill in middle-management roles for faceless corporations. In the context of creativity, the principle is much the same but with a more audacious offence on the creative subjects.
Children as young as 11 are sitting exams for the three core subjects: English, Maths and Science. Never mind the painters and dancers and singers and musicians who don’t quite fit as neatly and compactly into any one of those three sorting moulds. These students are un-categorised, unidentifiable and most dangerously, unpredictable. Not to suggest that creativity only exists in the tangible arts, because it is also an integral part of communication. Considering the rise of populism, political tensions and government shutdowns, communication is clearly a skill in dire demand.
The problem the dismissal of the arts as ‘soft’ subjects in schools, is that we all lose out. Would Sir Kenneth Branagh, have had such a stunning career without the grant he received to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art? His father was a joiner and his mother worked in a chip shop; the odds of them being able to finance his creative endeavours would have been extremely low. More importantly, consider where we would be without Sir Kenneth who reminded us that Shakespeare cannot be read like a church sermon; you could not possibly understand Hamlet’s anguish until you see him drooped over a chair, hoping that ‘this too, too solid flesh would melt’. The magic of Shakespeare became accessible to everyone, from those who can’t afford the price of a Shaftesbury Avenue ticket, to 15-year-olds with lumps in their throats during their English lessons. It would be fair to say that Branagh has demonstrated the nature of success unique to a career in the arts. And, it would also be fair for Branagh to say that the money invested in him has been paid back many times over.
Education is about the cultivation of minds, the prying open of potentials but not about the need to make you useful in perpetuating a broken, tired machine; this is institutionalisation. Come every term, most uni campuses across the country will be hosting career fairs, where they entice you to come with their tote bags filled with pamphlets and cheap branded stationary. This career-heavy focus has meant that the arts are not quite as well recognised for their value as their STEM counterparts.
However, bridges aren’t only made with steel, but with plays, novels, a TV series or even epic guitar solos.