Tuesday, 1 June 2021

How did it happen that what Michelangelo and Shakespeare did, got downgraded in education?

 I've written a bit about this before, so excuse me if it sounds familiar. It's on what we mean by 'interpretation' and 'knowledge'.

In loose talk, we are mostly sure what knowledge is: it's knowing 'stuff'. We see it displayed on TV all the time in terms of quiz shows with 'Mastermind' and 'University Challenge' being top of the tree. We also have a sense that there are some top people in society who must have a lot of knowledge and these are expressed or described when people use phrases  like 'brain surgeon' and 'rocket science'. These suggest that we have a common sense view that the people being brain surgeons or doing rocket science know loads of 'stuff' or even the most 'stuff' out of all of us. 

Let me park this for the moment and consider what runs parallel to this. If we stick with common sense and conventional wisdom for a moment, and ask what do people talk of as the greatest art, or the 'highest' art, it's not long before we reach the names of, say, Michelangelo or Shakespeare. (Please remember, this is not my hierarchy. I'm giving their names as examples of how these names are often given as examples of 'great art'.)

So the picture I'm painting here is of two parallel common assumptions: there is great knowledge and great art. Pressing on with these two 'great artists for the moment, we know that both of them devoted a huge amount of time and effort to interpreting other art in order to produce their art. Michelangelo's painting and sculptures, Shakespeare's plays frequently represent stories they knew or read or were told. Please take it as read that they each fed in their ideas and feelings and views of people they saw and knew around them into these re-tellings, re-picturings of other stories. 

We have elevated these two artists as having done great things. Understood.

In education, we prioritise the amassing of knowledge. I've read many justifications for this and I'm not arguing about this here and now. I'm raising a question: why is it that we praise and elevate what I'll call 'great interpretation' but we don't give it space and weight in education? Do we think that only a few people can do it? Do we think that when young people do it, it has no value? Or very little value? 

Further, when it comes to looking at stories - the kinds of stories that Michelangelo and Shakespeare interpreted - we do have a sense of what is appropriate to do with stories like that: we write essays, we do comprehension, we do 'unseens'. We don't create new art in the way that Michelangelo and Shakespeare did. Of course, there's a kind of irony in that schools are more likely to be places where we use essays and comprehension as a way of interpreting Shakespeare's interpretations (!) than doing painting, dance, ceramics, poetry or even drama. 

Lying behind this discussion, then, is a question about knowledge. Do people who interpret one art form with another art form use their knowledge of the first art form? Do they acquire or even create knowledge as they create the second art form? I'm someone who thinks so. I also think that we have grown to exclude this from kind of work from the curriculum without really thinking why we've done it. Now, with universities facing a 50% cut in arts subjects, I can see that if that happens, it will have a knock-on effect in secondary and primary schools: in effect, schools will say that that it isn't worth spending time on the arts because there's no visible or immediate outcome in higher education. (Of course not all arts are the kind of 'interpretations' that I've been talking about here. )

So this is meant as a provocation. Why have we reached a point where we have downgraded what is regarded as a high level activity when 'great artists' do it? How did that downgrading happen? Why did it happen? Does it matter?