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Why Aren't We Teaching Cinema in Schools?

13/03/2013 13:05 GMT | Updated 12/05/2013 10:12 BST

I guess you could call it a rustic sort of childhood. School was an earthy operation in which a new laboratory was no substitute for a new cricket pitch; a place where the self-flagellating nerd and the serial pothead were applauded equally for the pursuit of their respective endeavours; where stuffy classrooms were crowded with the aloofness of youth.

So forgive me, Westcountry-school-which-shall-remain-nameless, if I make an example of certain aspects of your otherwise exemplary curriculum.

I take it as a given that a certain portion of the school week is, for better or worse, devoted to that which will not accrue future earnings above the breadline, which will serve no greater purpose than to fuel the tête-à-têtes with which corporate types ingratiate one another before fleecing an opponent for all he is worth - devoted, that is, to the arts.

It is not upon the existence of arts teaching that I pitch my camp, but on its composition. For all his bluff and bravado, the teenager is the force-fattened goose of his teachers. Despite tireless attempts to subvert and avoid the schoolmasters' best intentions, the child will emerge a crypto-grown-up who will parrot his teachers' beliefs all the way to university, and, if they are sufficiently ingrained to weather the storm, beyond into adulthood, where they will be passed, like religious doctrine or an unsightly STD, to the next generation.

Alas, with the moderate power of the PGCE, comes great responsibility. An incident circa GCSE English 2006 springs to mind to illustrate my uneasiness. It concerns a teacher whom for the purposes of argument I'll call Mr Magoo (named for phonic resemblance rather than some slight on his stature or optical prowess - Magoo is in reality a man of good height, and one of those O Captain, My Captain teachers to boot).

Mr Magoo, as guided by the very reverend powers of the AQA exam board, walked the class through the shallow and murky waters of Barry Hines' Kes, the poor man trying for all the world to bleed some life out of what is a grim and inconsequential tale. With a final good-cop flourish, Mr Magoo rewarded our term's persistence with a treat. We were awarded a little ninety-minute opiate (figuratively of course, given that half the class were seasoned on harder stuff and would have considered this an insult to their constitutions); a brief academic hiatus into a celluloid Disneyland notorious for robbing children of their pocket money and their perspicacity: "Kids, have a look at the film version".

It was a good three or four years before I realised I'd been watching an indispensable New Wave picture, with which Ken Loach had rocked the boat of British working class society and wrenched cinema up to speed with the fraught socio-political dogmas of the 1960s. It was just an English lesson, and it was just some stupid film.

Of course, Mr Magoo might have felt that cinema was beyond the remit of the watertight GCSE syllabus, and therefore not worth the bother of a digression. It was, however, a moment of unwitting cultural eugenics; one of many, many more, which accumulate in the fertile and malleable mind of the young whippersnapper and are borne all the way to the water cooler of his miserable fortysomething office.

To clarify: it is possible to learn about the cinema in school. This time, without the disincentive of Mr Magoo's threats, I have actually done my homework. The module entitled 'Film' (only the lesser-used WJEC board offers the full GCSE) is to be found as a sub-category of such quasi-qualifications as 'GCSE Digital Communication' and 'GCSE Media Studies', rubbing shoulders with such pillars of erudition as 'Podcasts', 'Websites' and 'Popular Music' (emphasis on the popular). Of course, there isn't a book in sight.

The segregation is not limited to the jurisdiction of the exam boards; film is forcibly wallflowered, from the dinner party conversation to the national arts commentary, consigned to the pop digest to be pored over by lonely teens while the literati talk of the Booker.

However distasteful and embarrassing it may be that there have been 65 million furtive purchases of Fifty Shades of Grey since 2011, such indiscretions won't jeopardise the good name of Western literature. The sanctity of decent prose will always be protected on pain of death in libraries, lecture theatres and literary supplements, such that no educated man, woman or child could fail to know a good book when they see one.

There is no such canon for films. While free, meta-establishment thinking is to be prized, most people go about the subconscious business of creating a little canon of their own, usually informed by a divine arbitrator which measures greatness in ratios of savoury to unsavoury tomatoes.

It is this kind of trigger-happy adjudication, unfettered by any kind of academic analysis or historical context ("Sure, let's watch an old movie - but, Christ, nothing in black-and-white"), which serves to place unequivocal tripe onto billboards and awards rosters, the very same tripe which alienates the educated and confirms their suspicions that the pictures have nothing to offer their children but rotten brains and square eyes.

We must ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve by educating in the arts. Are we growing recital-bots, who store Western culture's greatest hits on some internal Dictaphone, to be replayed on request at interviews and after-dinner appearances? Probably. But no culture swot is complete without a Fellini to his Flaubert. He just doesn't know it yet.