The Tory Objection to Creative Education

The art critic Ruskin referred to the balance of art education as representing heart, head and hand. That might be referred to as attitude, aptitude and application in less emotive or poetic language. At the core of this sentiment is the idea that a person is seeking to grow and become effective in the world. The need to balance ones emotional intelligence with a growing sense of knowledge and pragmatic reflection from experience is what brings a person to wisdom and most importantly, self-determination. Education is an endlessly evolving mission, in permanent revolution, a journey of personal discovery intertwined with expanding technologies and shifting cultural norms that builds from a base of innate ability, intergenerational tradition and a passion for belonging somewhere in society. Creativity is a standard, ethos and principle at the core of learning that some choose to harness and exploit in discrete measure and others may rely on to balance their experiences and promote their independence of thought and reason.

The educator has experience of education; more than politicians and hopefully and most likely more that the learner. From this we can assume that they should have some authority to determine the nature of educational processes. Typically they will have knowledge and experience pertinent to their specialised themes. However, the primary task of the educator is to develop independence in the learner. The second is to develop mutual learning gain from peer to peer interaction. Instruction and knowledge transfer from teacher to pupil is, of course, a priority but it is not the only one and it is not the top priority. These are principle goals that belong to contemporary learning but they do have a very long tradition that relates to the way we build society’s wisdom through knowledge exchange and sharing. Even though state education is a relatively recent social innovation the role of the educator and our instinct to teach through empowerment has a deep history that has been repeatedly challenged through a period of growing mass education characterised by its’ organisational structures and systems for efficiency. Methods of creative education (many of which have been borrowed and adapted from the arts) and habits of creative learning are the route to ever greater cultural and economic inclusion but the real breakthrough will come when educational participation starts to reference high quality and widespread mutual learning exchange within social networks and between individuals. This point may be summed up in the words of Septima Clark (Highlander Folk School, Tennessee);

‘...if we start now, we will have less people to teach tomorrow[1]’.

In other words, if people are educated thoroughly they will, by nature, disseminate learning through their own ‘life-wide’ habits. Current manifestations of rhizomatic educational practices (‘culture led learning’, ‘interest initiated learning’, ‘hive networking’, ‘Schools of participation’, ‘open mutual learning’) are frequently classified by both theorists and practitioners as informal or community education but they are more complex than either tag would suggest. Instead, they tend to represent an innate cultural reflex; an instinctive process of narrative exchange, knowledge sharing and inter-generational wisdom; it is in our nature.


It is now more than 50 years since the Highlander Folk School (Tennessee, USA) had its charter revoked for subversive influence and was subsequently closed in 1961. This was in the context of a communist witch hunt and was primarily a back lash against the direct engagement of the School in promoting civil rights and desegregation; equality. What had really disturbed Bruce Bennett, the Attorney General of Arkansas, about the School was its impact on socio-political networks way beyond what might be expected of a single educational institution. Much of his evidence was focussed on significant individuals who had been educated at Highlander or worked specifically with Myles Horton, one of the founders of the School. Underlying his arguments was his observation that none of the people cited had a significant political history before they met Miles Horton, in other words they were not the sons and daughters of influential families. This is what qualified them as subversives and communists. What disturbed Bennett was the transformational potential of an educational process. Creative education, as a system, is far too egalitarian; too liberalising for the normal hegemonic meritocracies that characterise Western democracies because they generally challenge the concept of knowledge as privilege.

In 2014, in the UK, one potent increased risk to exacerbating the problem of social segregation on the basis of class, economic access and educational privilege directly results from the changes to the funding systems for Higher Education; what might be referred to as the new settlements. Changes affecting student number controls and selective subsidy are anticipated to have a brutal impact on participation rates in higher learning. The UK has shifted away from a publicly financed higher education system that is still in its relative infancy. It was initially triggered at the end of the First World War by a University sector bankrupted by a stagnant economy and zero growth rates; a condition that has a ring of currency and familiarity. This generated a welfare offer that was quickly adopted as a norm but never succeeded in properly and fairly embedding into democratic society; in other words it has failed to deliver mass inclusion or universal benefits. As a culture we generally believe we have a public education system but forget that very few people have directly accessed all of its privileges. The notion that education supports democracy and consequently fairness is well established in our collective memory. If that were ever its function it never quite got there; and now, it will never again have the opportunity.

In the first instance, state sponsored education was not intended as a route to personal fulfilment or an improved sense of self-worth for the individual student. It may be that we individually recognise and approve of this possibility but this is not the foremost purpose of educational welfare. Consistently, society has tended towards maintaining a view that Universities and Schools serve the public interest via utility and influence that can be aligned to impact measures of general benefit; employability, leadership and innovation. They will propagate authority and control.

According to the 19th Century poet and historian Giosue Carducci, the University of Bologna is the oldest continually operating University in the world. Founded in 1088 and having received its charter from the Holy Roman Emperor in 1158, the word ‘universitas’ or community (relating to scholars and teachers) was first conferred on the Alma Mater Studiorum before any other institution that has since continued to operate. This is relevant in so far as the purpose of the charter or the granting of authority and rights from Frederick 1 was to ensure a scholarly tradition in the study of the Digest of Roman Law (the Pandects); a compendium of civil law, the institutions or elements of law and the new constitutions created by the Roman Emperor Justinian 1 in the 6th century. The creation of ‘communities of masters and scholars’ (universitas magistrorum et scholarium), was intended to strengthen principles of civic and institutional law and enshrine medieval Christian authority and rule. Tabled within the pages of the HEFCE strategic plan 2006-2011 Sir Alan Langlands’ view of the university and Higher Education as a responsive and energising driver for social transformation reflects a liberal construct that arises from the relatively recent condition of state funding and support but its political value is not so distinct from that recognised by Frederick 1. Universities have amended their mission, function and behaviour in preparation for mass engagement and comprehensive education in line with the aspirations for social democracy represented by the state and parliament through the 20th Century. However, via the state directive they are effectively interpreting the patron needs; to produce an educated and prepared work force. It is a similar model of authoritative control imposed by the pay-master in 1158. However, since the introduction of fees, the payee is the student or the families of wealthy students. Privileged social class determines the priorities of education and higher learning from now forward. So long as these are the same people who determine the composition of our national government through our impoverished democratic system of elections, then right wing determinism will maintain control over principles and policy. As a nation, we can extinguish any possibility of radical thought in the student body and even presage the outcomes of cultural production to ensure compliance. According to the government, the whole education paradigm must shift and is shifting away from creativity in learning and from creative disciplines of practice. It may safely be assumed that the result will be to limit the learner’s freedoms and to enhance the predictability of education as a service.


If we were to accept that the education we provide should be measured by its direct vocational outcomes we may concede some legitimacy in the strategic reduction or withdrawal from current levels of education provision affecting the creative disciplines. But this is not the role of art or creative education; not in schools, colleges, universities, community facilities, adult education classrooms or anywhere else. The essential nature of creative education is that it reinforces independence and the learner’s responsibility to learn and to discover. It is relatively easy to describe as a process in higher and tertiary education because it has so many subject headings. However, it starts as a process in early years, pre-school and pre-nursery. Access to creativity in learning is a reliable route to self-awareness, fulfilment and a sense of self-worth; equal access is good for society because it can so easily promote confidence and foster broad political and cultural engagement. It is essential that we as a society focus on the release of latent individual capacity; the development of independent learning skills, innovative thinking and the motivation of risk and critical challenge. It is imperative that we spread the net as widely as is conceivable and involve all those with appetite or curiosity. These things are necessary if we want a broadly inclusive society and fully functioning democracy. In essence, creative education will, by nature, widen inclusion and develop the potential cultural contribution of ever larger constituencies. Therefore, we need to ask why any government would strive with stealth to remove creative themes from the standard curriculum in Schools and show such objection to creative education as an approach to developing the passion for enquiry and discovery in young people.

Discussion References: 
Septima Clark

Septima Clark (Highlander Folk School, Tennessee)