Sunday 30 November 2014

Oh, the humanities!

Hello, everyone. Some of you may be aware that a few of my blog articles have appeared on a music and media website I hugely admire, The Rocking Vicar. So - while the anger in the column is quite genuine - I was very pleased to be invited back into the parish and comment on the recent 'arts in education' controversy. I've archived my piece below, in case any of you are casually browsing my blog (and thank you, if you are!). That said, the Rocking Vicar presents several views of the debate, and I urge you to take a look and read it. (Really, that's good advice at any time.)

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Theatre journal The Stage has reported back on a speech Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, gave to launch the ‘Your Life’ campaign – an enterprise which aims to encourage more youngsters to study the sciences.

So far, so encouraging you might think, until you hear what she has to say about other disciplines (her full speech is on the Government website, here):

“Even a decade ago, young people were told that maths and the sciences were simply the subjects you took if you wanted to go into a mathematical or scientific career, if you wanted to be a doctor, or a pharmacist, or an engineer.

But if you wanted to do something different ... then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful for all kinds of jobs.

Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.”

She goes on:

“And yet maths, as we all know, is the subject that employers value most, helping young people develop skills which are vital to almost any career. And you don’t just have to take my word for it - studies show that pupils who study maths to A level will earn 10% more over their lifetime.

These figures show us that too many young people are making choices aged 15, which will hold them back for the rest of their life.”

How dispiriting, that in promoting what could have been a pure positive, Morgan felt the need to label the arts subjects as redundant, to the point where taking them up could actively damage a student’s prospects.

In a remarkably short run of sentences, Morgan makes her real priorities clear: business and money. Although she has a fondness for generalisations that would cause horror in any self-respecting scientist, she’s quite clear that employers just want maths specialists – and as a result, they can expect to coin it in, at least by the time they retire.

It’s only fair she’s specific on the maths point. A look at funding cuts is all it takes to get a measure of how recent Governments have felt about the arts, but scientists in certain quarters might raise at least one eyebrow each, too. Sobering to imagine a new wave of young botanists welcomed into Kew Gardens, for example, only to find themselves in the midst of budget and job loss trauma. At least the finance industry, in the face of similar issues – like bringing the world’s economy to its knees – can expect help from the State. So maths it is.

I would be very interested to know if these algebra-adoring employers are looking to flood their communications, marketing and PR departments with mathematicians. I work for a communications outfit, and you might be relieved to learn that when we recruit a writer, our sifting process doesn’t start with my shuffling the application forms and saying, “OK – I have all the astrophysics graduates here. I’ll prioritise in order of the ones who put down ‘reading’ under ‘interests.’”

I’m not overly sentimental about the arts – I don’t think they are needed merely to produce rounded, fulfilled individuals. In fact, individuals can be more effective when they give their real inclinations their head and become angular, questing. It’s society that needs a balance, of everyone from all camps. The humanities are there for our pastimes, sure: but they are also essential in the workplace.

Since getting my degree (Classics & English), I have ordered books in a utilities library, edited digests for a scientific research institute, summarised pension information for loss assessors and currently write plain language documents about savings and finance. I’ve been able to do these jobs not because I have qualifications in chemistry or accounting – but because of my linguistic background.

If Morgan had more respect for the humanities, she might have had a better grasp of the language she used. She might have realised that she was talking dismissive nonsense, and more – as her words now zing around the internet, untethered – that she could cause real harm.

How many of those 15-year-olds, with a natural affinity towards not just words, but art, music, drama, history – and so on – are now going to think twice?

Let’s follow our teenager as she makes the ‘correct’ choices. (I’ve decided to use ‘she’ because Morgan is cynical enough to dress up this dismissal of the arts as a blow for increasing women’s prominence in the sciences – as if subject choices should in any way be gendered against individual instincts. Shame on her.)

Despite a flair for the written word and regular appearances in the school play, our pupil’s careers adviser points out that whether she’s got her heart set on theatre or not, a normal job is out of her reach with ‘just’ these skills. Suppressing her feelings of inadequacy for not having the right kind of talent, she puts those interests to one side and chooses scientific subjects. As a result, she gets by, because she can put arguments across and all that line-learning has given her a formidable memory. But she never quite achieves top grades.

By the time she reaches the job market, she fills in application after application with no success. It doesn’t matter where she applies – pharmaceutical giant or art gallery – most candidates either have better grades than her, or they studied subjects closer to the company’s remit. Inevitably, she gains no experience, making her even less employable. The end result is long-term unemployment, deep-rooted feelings of failure and wasted potential.

This is the devastating power of careless language, and if we’re not watchful, it will be the stumbling, incoherent outcome of Morgan’s campaign.

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