Yesterday I caught the end of an old episode of The South Bank Show, where Melvyn Bragg interviewed Steven Spielberg in 1982, the year ET: the Extra-Terrestrial was released. I tuned in at the right moment, when Spielberg looked at him with a childlike smile and said, “Movies are dreams. They’re the daydreams you have at school that give you bad grades because you should be thinking about schoolwork.”
At this point I found myself wondering if the Education secretary, Nicky Morgan, was watching, and if she was experiencing any pangs of shame or regret about her comments this week. Speaking at an event to promote science and maths she said that if young people study creative subjects it would “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. She also suggested that if you didn’t know what you wanted to do career-wise “the arts and humanities were what you chose”, as if this was the worst case scenario for aimless and disengaged young people, opting out so they could continue being aimless and disengaged into adulthood.
I’m pretty sure this flight of fancy, Spielberg awakening Morgan’s own imaginative lightbulb, really was pure fantasy. Instead she was probably spending her evening doing more industrious tasks, perhaps planning tests for two year olds or shutting down libraries. After all, she wouldn’t want to hold back the rest of her life by engaging with other people’s ideas, particularly when it involves the horrific crime of doing something other than schoolwork.
Her comments suggest to me that she doesn’t believe in the restorative power of the arts, and that she considers nourishment of the soul to be superficial and distracting. Many fictional dystopian worlds have been created as an extension of this idea, worlds where society is governed by work and making money, and freedom of thought or speech or time is punishable by a variety of methods. These dystopian societies are always described as nightmare worlds, where the characters’ lives become small and meaningless, where experience becomes controlled, tested and judged, and where human existence becomes a crippling burden on the spirit.
Successive governments have built an education system that programs our children to retain information in order to pass exams, tick boxes, and fit into a narrowly defined slot. Teachers themselves are so governed by these strict boundaries they no longer have the flexibility to allow students to follow their own passions and interests. As a result teachers are leaving the profession in their thousands, their knowledge and ideas lost to the next generation who will be sent out into the world with a narrow vision and an inability to think for themselves.
If this is Mrs Morgan’s warped view of the future, how does she address the fact that creative thought does more than paint pictures, write novels and perform plays? Creative thought is also about making connections between ideas, whether that means an engineer toiling alone in her workshop, or the Apple method of bringing experts together to work collaboratively. This is the way inventions develop, new systems are implemented, and new thinking can improve the lives of people around the world. But I guess we’ll have to do without that.
As human beings we are born with an innate creativity. Our childhood years are spent creating our understanding of the world, exploring it through drawing, playing, talking. If a child is allowed to continue exploring this side of themselves through music or art, performance or writing, they will continue to use this intrinsic ability in whatever they decide to do, whether that’s a job in the arts or trade and industry. Even running a bank.
And as for those people studying or working in the arts being aimless and disengaged, they are some of the most driven and productive people I know. In order to survive in the creative industries you need a level of self-motivation that’s beyond that of many other careers, because apart from family and friends, there is very little out there to support you, monetarily or otherwise.
So, my hope for the future is that all children get to attend the Spielberg School of Creative Thought, allowing infinitely more time to stare out the window and daydream.
Now that’s utopia.
Next week: Part 2 – a personal perspective.