Palmyra, Art Making Animals, #ARTCONNECTS, the Jarrow Marchers, and Ethics

Courtesy of Catch Up T.V. I watched the first episode of Civilisations: Second Moment of Creation on BBC2 this weekend. The historian, Simon Schama is a magician. He speaks with an authority and allure that instantly places you under a spell, drawing you in. Schama announces the series by looking at the formative role art and the creative imagination have played in the forging of humanity itself. I have now watched the first five minutes of that episode several times. The gravity of the opening moments will not escape you. We endeavour to protect the treasures of civilisations so that we pass on their revelation to the future, Schama says. But then, every so often, something comes along to shake them from our grip. Schama gives us the example of the ancient city of Palmyra, in present day Syria – 130 miles northeast of Damascus, known by Syrians as the ‘Bride of the Desert’. Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a place of significant interest because it is a place where the cultures of Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Jews mixed and merged. Last year, the ISIS militant group took over Palmyra and razed some of the ancient ruins to the ground. The militants captured the site’s Chief Curator Khaled al-Asaad and publicly beheaded him when he refused to say where some of the site’s treasures had been taken for safe-keeping. Schama muses on the fact that we might talk about the value of saving and cherishing treasures passed on as civilisation but then, How many of us would give up our life for it? Schama offers help in defining civilisation by helping us recognise its counterpart.

When its opposite shows up in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and lust for destruction we know what civilisation is. We know it from the shock of its imminent loss as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.

And then, for me, the nub, with Schama declaring, “We are the art making animal”. It defines our place in the world. Wow! The meaning behind the programme’s subtitle is revealed. ‘The Second Moment of Creation.’ The dawning of human creativity.

A couple of weeks ago it was Rae Snape (Twitter: @RaeSnape ) who drew my attention to a national 3 day festival to showcase Creative Schools, Work and Lives. A collaboration with venues and organisations across Kings Cross, London; The #ARTCONNECTS Festival of Creativity organised by @ST3AMC0 and @People4Art .

You know those flyers that edufirms weigh down the friendly school postie’s sack with? The ones that announce event dates and then suggest audience make up? Often they begin (always in perceived hierarchical order) with headteacher, deputy headteacher, senior leadership team, and finish somewhere deeper on the page with ‘the boiler service engineer’. Well, the #ARTCONNECTS organisers stated that the event was for ‘Parents and other Carers like Artists, Parents, Teachers, Techs, Creatives, Students and Business People’. I know that because I have just looked it up. I rather pathetically replied to Rae that because I live 250 miles north of London I would not be attending. I should have done. I wish I had. I would have been better persuaded if I had registered the target audience at the time.

I followed the event with interest, courtesy of Twitter. It is well worth spending a bit of time trawling through the #ARTCONNECTS thread. At the event, Geoff Barton (General Secretary ASCL) gave an excellent and heartfelt talk on the ‘arts as a social mobility birthright’.

Geoff highlights the fact that the squeeze on creative art subjects in state schools is not happening in independent schools. It is not, because it is seen as an entitlement, what parents are paying for. Geoff suggests that we change tack in our line of debate. This is not about funding, it is about values and social mobility. What is more, “Through art, humans become more human.” It is, therefore, “a birthright”. This really does take us back to Simon Schama’s viewpoint does it not? We are the art making animal. It defines our place in the world. The Second Moment of Creation was the dawn of human creativity. This is an ethical issue. It is.

If you do not follow George Gilchrist’s (Twitter @Gilchrist George ) blog I suggest you do. Always challenging, insightful and interesting. This week, George posted this, Speaking of ethics . George argues that, often, those issues we see as located around values do in fact raise questions around ethical working. George says that if we do not take the time to discuss and consider such issues, it is so easy for us to take the path of least resistance, taking action or making decisions that best meet the needs of the system rather than the learners and families we work with every day. And then, the big question, we all recognise:

Is it ethical to spend time narrowing the curriculum and spending more time preparing young learners for tests, just because they are high-stakes for us? Is it right that we coach learners in how to pass exams, rather than continuing to educate them holistically?

Twenty plus years on from that TED Talk, Do schools kill creativity , Ken Robinson spoke at an event held in Minneapolis on 22nd February. A huge misconception amongst adults, according to Robinson, is that kids don’t like to learn. On the contrary, “my conviction is that kids love to learn. That’s not the problem,” he shared. Rather, “it’s the construct of school” that beats a love to learn out of students, he says.

We have to reframe the abilities of our children. We have deep natural talents, but we have to discover them and cultivate them. If you have a narrow view of ability, you generate an enormous amount of inability.

Geoff is right, of course it is a question of values. Although, George has me thinking that it is more than that. It is an ethical issue. Who are we to deny our young ones their birthright? I agree with Geoff, through art, humans become more human. For, after all, as Simon Schama says, we are the art making animal. The dawning of human creativity, Schama contends, equates to the Second Moment of Creation. If we heed Ken Robinson’s warnings on adopting a narrow view of ability, condemning those simultaneously branded as unable, whilst observing a creeping narrowing of the curriculum, we are working unethically.

It is worth hearing again Simon Schama’s reflection on civilisation:

When its opposite shows up in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and lust for destruction we know what civilisation is. We know it from the shock of its imminent loss as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.

I do not wish to disrespect Khaled al-Asaad and his family by comparing his making of the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the treasures he saw as his duty to pass on to the next generation to the, let us call it the identified birthright issue, in our schools, but it is worth thinking on. It is an ethical issue.

Something else to contemplate… we are getting very clever, it seems, at creating automatons, and new ground is being broken in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Does this mean that non-humans, created by humans, are shifting on the spectrum, closer to where humans currently sit? Another question… If we continue to take the path of less resistance, not challenging ‘the system’ as it currently stands and works, stripping children of their creativity in our schools, are we humans actually shifting towards those non-humans on the spectrum; a convergence? Now that is an ethical issue!

I would like to finish on a brighter, more promising note. Those of you who are kind enough to find the time to read my blogs know that my passion is community capacity building and working for more authentic, socially engaged, family-school-community partnerships. Ken Robinson challenged the idea that many of our young ones are apathetic and do not like to learn. Rather, he says, school systems are failing too many children. I would like to add to that by dispelling the myth that families in those communities that I have been lucky enough to work are apathetic where the Arts is concerned. On two occasions, I have had the absolute pleasure to be one of a group of 180 plus children and adults (parents/carers + staff) from two of the schools I have led in, journeying to London to take advantage of what the Big City has to offer. On both occasions (two different school communities) we spent a full day in the Tate Britain exploring the work of William Turner. The evening we spent at The Lyceum, watching The Lion King. The following day, the Victoria and Albert Museum. We worked with the children and parents prior to the visit, in school, and post-visit. Don’t tell me there isn’t an appetite for the Arts in communities such as those I have served. I will never forget the sight of one dad sitting two seats down from me in the Lyceum, perched on the edge of his seat, transfixed, his face a picture of sheer enjoyment. I cannot say how many times he thanked me after the show, on behalf of his son, and himself, when it was for me to thank him.

The Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810) by JMW Turner

I have spoken in previous blogs of schools encouraging parents/carers to be activists, change agents. Geoff is right to say that we cannot stand by and allow the squeeze on arts to go unchallenged. I say we enlist our parents and community and have them stand with us to demand the birthright of our young ones.

Returning to the matter of delegate menus. Reading that list of suggested attendees for #ARTCONNECTS awakens in me memories such as that described above. That is why I should have listened to Rae and got myself down there. After all, if the Jarrow Marchers can walk to London, I could have caught the train or driven.

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