EBacc to No Future? No. Let Art Be Created, Let the World Flourish

11/07/2016 12:12 | Updated 11 July 2016

On Monday of this week MPs acted on the wishes of over 102,000 petition signatories to debate the exclusion of expressive arts subjects from the English Baccalaureate [EBacc]. On the eve of the debate a friend and education campaigner took to social media to share his fear that the EBacc, "is literally going to kill creativity, coding and the arts in England." Barbaric though the omission may be, it's hard to accept it might prove fatal. It felt ironic that just a few days earlier the same friend had posted pictures of himself at a talk which John Lydon gave as part of Punk London: 40 years of subversive culture (my italics.) You can imagine how the original punk iconoclasts might have reacted if told schooling was essential to creative expression. Compare and contrast with punk's DIY attitude: "Here-are-3-chords, now-form-a-band." In truth, I suspect that for many of us who grew up in the 70's, creativity happened in spite of and not because of school. Moreover creativity found voice then and continues to find voice through pursuits that owe nothing to the so-called creative subjects. One of the most creative of my old school mates is a theoretical physicist.

But there's a bigger and more important point to be made here. Whether we speak in terms of the expressive arts or more broadly of creativity, neither is inherently positive. Take the inaptly named Futurists and their slogan, "Fiat ars - pereat mundus" ("Let art be created. Let the world perish.") These artists may have produced some of the early twentieth century's most arresting images, but their manifesto, published 5 years before the outbreak of the Great War was chilling:

  • "We will glorify war--the world's only hygiene--militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
  • We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice."

It's tempting, perhaps, to dismiss The Futurists as talented yet provocatively malignant exceptions. But do we then deny the feedback loops involving our twenty-first century lives and those strands of contemporary culture that trade in violence and misogyny? In any case the philosopher and literary critic George Steiner warned that all art holds potential to deaden our moral senses even where its impulse is benevolent. Desensitising immersion in the "fictive abstractions" of serious literature, drama and film, he wrote, can not only "accompany bestiality and oppression and despotism but at certain points foster it." (The Paris Review, Winter, 1995)

Asked how this apprehension implicated his work as a teacher, Steiner replied:

"I'd love to be remembered as a good teacher of reading, and I mean remedial reading in a deeply moral sense: the reading should commit us to a vision, should engage our humanity, should make us less capable of passing by."

I'm pleased Westminster was persuaded to question the demotion of the expressive arts. And I'm happy that Catherine McKinnell MP made the point that, "Access to cultural education is a matter of social justice." But I'd be a good deal happier had the debate revealed a deeper consideration of what that might mean; of how it might make us, "less capable of passing by." The assertion by the Conservative's David Warburton that, "It is testimony to the unifying moral power of music that both the Taliban and ISIS, or Daesh, have banned it" implied the same depth of thinking that shaped the facile Fundamental British Values. And the predictable bundling by Tristram Hunt of creative skills, future job prospects and social mobility was underpinned by commitment to economic growth, a model that is unsustainable and increasingly at odds with social justice.

In September 2015 UN member states formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to plot a course to 2030. The fourth of these Goals commits each country to, "ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all." Subsection 4.7 specifies the need for, "education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture's contribution to sustainable development."

But this aspiration will prove worthless if these things remain bolt-ons; if in all other respects, we hold fast to our faith that human creativity must be given free rein. To fetishise our species' itch to mold and remold our environment is an act of profound hubris that actually will prove fatal. For sure, our world is urgently in need of creative solutions. We face a vast constellation of supremely complex problems. But let's not forget that most of these problems have been created by our creativity. All hope hinges on our willingness and capacity to attend to the moral purpose of the full range of human creativity. Unless educators accept their critical role in this - and we could start by following Steiner in asking hard questions about how we wish to be remembered - we will only succeed in equipping our students to grow and multiply existing problems.

So, yes, it's a very fine thing that over 100,000 citizens petitioned Parliament to discuss creativity in education. But now it's the time for a longer, wider, deeper debate about what education's really for. Young people will create come what may. It's our task to help them do so in such a way that their world and that of their descendants may flourish. Fail and, as Johnny Rotten said, "there is no future."