Sunday, 13 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn's ideas: the Arts and Science

The most exciting thing about Jeremy Corbyn's election is the imaginative energy which it has unleashed. The mere fact of his landslide election is an eschewing of constraints within which we all believed we were imprisoned by and could do nothing about. What brought this about? The power of the imagination! We should never underestimate the power of exploring new, fresh ideas. It seems to me that those bewailing his victory as "the end of days" are bereft of ideas (they're now reduced to a single idea: get rid of him!). The mealy-mouthed, cynical politics of New Labour always had a very limited repertoire of ideas; and the Tories manage to carry off this rather meagre oeuvre with more voter appeal than Labour ever could. New Labour had their moment with Blair's 'clause 4' - that too was about shedding constraint - and they won power. Unfortunately, government - and Iraq - put the shackles on them again. Blair is clanking around like Marley's ghost - and his protégés have never been allowed to think for themselves (Blame Mandelson)

The most eye-catching aspect of Corbyn's campaign was his very clear statement about the arts. It is a statement about ideas and creativity: Note, there is no comparable statement for science. There are policy documents for business, green technologies and his 'national education service', but in terms of something that drives the intellectual innovative climate in the country, Corbyn's statement about the arts goes the furthest:
"The key to enriching Britain is to guarantee a broad cultural education for all (through arts skills acquisition, participation in arts and cultural events and enhanced appreciation), an education and a curriculum that is infused with multi-disciplinarily, creativity and enterprise which identifies, nurtures and trains tomorrow’s creative and cultural talent."
I can only ask, Why did it take a renegade politician to make such a powerful statement about developing the intellectual capital of the country? Why have we had to suffer interminable blathering from arts ministers desperately trying to defend their budgets with no clear vision as to what a national climate of imagination can do? Why has there been continual talk about 'aspiration' from the government and opposition tied to a market-oriented logic that dulls hope and reduces everything to monetary terms? Corbyn's document defends a cultural environment to encourage the growth of ideas, even if some of them aren't any good. Indeed, it supports the ideas that don't work as much as those few that do. It recognises that a cultural system is an ecology:
"Culture is unpredictable. It often bites the hand that feeds it. It produces more dross than glory. Of course it does. But the dross must be defended because the road to glory lies always over the bogs of dross."
I've often wondered whether our market-driven shackles have been determined not by greedy capitalists, but by a particularly blinkered approach to creativity and science which has been delivered by the education system (which certainly breeds greedy capitalists!) What we think science is, how scientific knowledge arises, what role creativity and the imagination play in the process, are all fundamental questions which have shaped the way we organise society. In today's world, entrepreneurial technological innovation is seen as the "way forwards": and yet, as the behemoths of the technological world become bloated, gradually they too run out of ideas. At the same time, our society starves those without the independent means to explore their ideas by marketising and commodifying education.

In our school science classes, we reproduce the great experiments of the past. We are taught empirical procedures set out in textbooks which mechanise the whole thing, and constrain all the possible things we might think of doing with a Bunsen burner to very few 'acceptable' things (measured by learning outcomes) - partly out of fear of exploring the dangerous things. No intellectual advance ever was produced through such constraints: they only induce fear and reinforce an authoritarian environment for science.

The arts are fundamentally about play, and play is missing from virtually all aspects of intellectual development within school. As crude metrics, learning outcomes, exams, monotonous coursework and (more than anything else) league tables and managerial pathology have taken hold, minds are dulled into a 'professionalised' conformance. At an academic conference I was at recently, I was struck by how similar many of the academic presentations were. A friend muttered to me "professional academics - it didn't used to be like that..." Damn right it didn't!

The deep question is that in our understanding of how science works, and how scientists work, there is a huge gap in our understanding about how scientists play, and the conditions within which they are enabled to play. That, I think, is what's Corbyn's arts strategy is about. Scientists and artists are both in the business of generating lots of ideas. They know not all of them will work. Knowledge comes from testing ideas in reality and working out which ones work and which ones don't. If we taught our kids like that, rather than get them to ape successful experiments, we would have a much more invigorating science education which genuinely embraced curiosity. Scientists would become more like artists. And our economic prospects would be invigorated by the sudden removal of constraints of imagination which we thought would be with us for ever.

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