Not from the sidelines

First published on November 2011.

This argument is by no means one you haven’t heard before, but I’m going to make it again. It is one that is vital not only to ensure the thriving nature and fitness of our creative and cultural industries, but for our broader culture and society to develop and to grow truly rich.

Education has long been the means by which we explore and gain intellectual knowledge and skill, but without developing our emotional capacities in tandem, we are simply not making a well-rounded society capable of the growth, diversity and continuity that we seek. This is the kind of fully-functioning society that we are going to need to be if we are to cope with the exponential rate of change of the 21st century.

I want to make the case for the value of working on the human scale and for whole person development within education. We need to be nurturing a society whose members can reason, judge and decide, but who do so with emotional intelligence, respect and imagination. When I imagine a healthy education system, and by that I mean any vocational and/or academic system of learning, it is one that explores and holds in high esteem emotional competence alongside core intellectual or practical skills. One that does so by leading in both what it teaches and in the way it teaches it; by exploring thinking and feeling.

Now it seems a given to me that if you want to achieve those kinds of aspirations then you certainly can’t force still further a hierarchical divide between what are and aren’t considered core subjects of worth. It is a most terrifying idea to me that anyone would attempt to say that studying art history, musical composition or a foreign language is worth less to society or to an individual than studying mathematics or understanding the periodic table.

This way of thinking displays little imagination. An engineer needs to grasp the potential of drawing as a means of expressing ideas, just as a city planner must be able to envisage what it should feel like to be part of a community. A scientist can never disengage from ethics nor should a nurse from their patients’ social and emotional reality. We are guilty enough within the creative and cultural industries of ghettoising disciplines and practice, and our understanding has to expand – the world is just more complex than that. And there is plenty of evidence that there is a plethora of different ways in which people learn deeply and well.

Far from being sidelined, creative ways of learning should be embedded within all subjects in order to make gaining knowledge more meaningful and more broadly accessible. As this government sets out to establish how societal wellbeing might be measured, never mind achieved, we are more than ready with evidence in their language about the economic sense of embedding creativity in education – for those who are willing to hear it.

It also seems apparent that the value system around education in our society is out of step with the realities and opportunities with which our economy, societal structure and exponentially growing population provide us. We have an academic higher education system which neither government nor individuals can, broadly speaking, afford. This same system produces, in many subjects, many more academically trained individuals than there are suitable income-earning opportunities.
The academic system did not historically develop with the purpose of preparing its students for vocational employment and yet it is entered into by individuals who expect that it should make them fit for purpose. And a degree is seen by an employer as a qualification relating to this fitness for purpose in the jobs market when often it simply is not.

What we need to work really, really hard on is overcoming the hierarchy that places academic study above vocational training or experience. We need to work at raising the fundamental value (as well as increasing the number of available opportunities) of pursuing vocational and experiential pathways as well as academic ones, to create a level playing field for a broader and more balanced society. Quite frankly, it’s still our snobbery that is holding us back.

To be prosperous does not mean to be financially rich – it means to flourish. We all need a reason to be prosperous; we need to care and to be sufficiently invested in our society to want to play a part, and find fulfillment, in it. And for that, we cannot survive without creativity and without nurturing the potential of our imaginations. If our young people are starved too early of a diversity of subject and learning routes – of ways of exploring their world which they can feel are valued – we will ultimately risk being poorer in diversity, creativity and perspectives in our future society. And that, to me, seems too big a risk to take.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -