One important thing governments don’t get about arts education

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More bureaucrats by Bosc d’Anjou

By Grant Hall. Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

I once worked for the Australian Ministry for the Arts under that bumbling git Attorney General George Brandis, whose self-proclaimed “passion for the arts” served as his main credentials for the post. Cabinet ministers are often placed in positions where they are required to make important decisions affecting a real-life field of endeavor in which they have limited knowledge or expertise, and the role of the Minister for the Arts is a prime example. It is rare for an Australian Minister for the Arts to have any real credentials from within the arts sector, the last being musician Peter Garrett who held the post from 2007 to 2010.

Arts education has also suffered through having non-experts in charge, as the acclaimed Australian musician Richard Gill points out in his book Give me excess of it:

I have watched music education move out of the hands of the genuine musician into the hands of the bureaucrats and curriculum writers, who know little of education and nothing of music.

Whilst Gill was talking about music specifically, the same could be said for other artistic disciplines. Over recent years there have been many government funding cuts to arts education programs, and the rationale often given by the decision makers demonstrates an important aspect of arts education that governments get wrong.

Here is how the Australian Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, defended reductions made to the number of tertiary arts courses eligible for VET student loans:

Most Australian taxpayers rightly expect that their support for student loans will go to courses that will help students get a job and ultimately earn enough money to repay what was lent to them… the demand for graduates is not significant enough to justify funding every single arts course, just as it isn’t in many other industries[1].

Similarly, Gina Fairley’s article for artshub.com titled The lock down on art in prisons (paywall) quotes the New South Wales Minister for Corrections David Elliott on his reasoning for slashing the state’s prison teaching staff from 158 full time positions to just 20 in 2016:

Corrective Services is a small education provider so inmate programs often reflect the skills of teachers who are available at a centre, not necessarily the needs of inmates. For example, between a quarter and a third of vocational programs are in art and music rather than areas linked to inmate employment

Minister Elliott and Minister Birmingham are decreasing access to arts education on the misguided notion that the skills that people learn in such courses have limited relevance to the job market.

This is bullshit; and anyone who has any expertise in arts education knows this. The actions of these ministers and their attempts to justify their decisions highlights their ignorance and lack of understanding about important aspects of their jobs.

I know that arts education gives students superior work skills that are highly transferable; I learned this first hand as I studied to earn a Diploma of Music. I haven’t worked professionally as a musician in over twelve years now, but does that mean that my government subsidised music education was a waste of time or money? Hell no!

I went on to post-graduate studies in business and management and have established a successful career, but from within the educational framework, I learned more business skills through studying music than I ever did from studying business or management.

In How music education builds economic growth in South Australia, one of wherewordsfailblog.com’s most read posts, I listed a set of skills that I learned from my time studying music, namely how my music studies taught me to:

  • strive towards quality (this is the essence of what a musician does)
  • be disciplined in my approach to work
  • be organised
  • show up sober and on time
  • manage a small business (which a musician essentially is)
  • creatively collaborate with others (for example, by playing in a band)
  • improvise
  • be confident presenting to large groups
  • build a supportive industry
  • plan ahead and set goals
  • understand current trends and foresee future ones
  • engage with competition
  • lead and work in culturally diverse teams
  • be sociable with a diverse range of people (eg: band mates and audiences)
  • be flexible with the application of my skills
  • market my services
  • be creative and innovative

These are skills that are important in today’s job market where so much emphasis is placed on creativity, innovation and teamwork. Blind Freddy can see how such skills would be particularly valuable to an ex-offender seeking to enter the job market post-release. Of course, you can be taught these skills theoretically in non-arts related courses, but what makes music and other creative arts studies different is the hands-on, practical nature of the learning environment. If we take music for example, these skills are gained through the practical experience of learning an instrument, playing in and leading ensembles and undertaking other industry related courses, such as music business. Musicians who don’t develop all of these skills won’t pass their music courses and won’t obtain their tertiary music qualification.

In his book Rules of Engagement, Kim Williams, the leading Australian media executive and former head of many Australian arts organisations, discusses how his music education helped him to develop the professional skills that led him to become one of Australia’s most prominent CEO’s. He thanks his music education for giving him the listening skills that helped raise him to the task of delivering strong outcomes in his high-profile employment roles (you can read more about this in Solving global challenges. Listening and the importance of learning music and languages). Incidentally, he was one of Gill’s music students and they share a despondency about the decision-making prowess (or lack thereof) of Australian governments, which is something Williams makes a strong point about in Rules of Engagement:

Decisions are often driven by knee-jerk reactions and/or simplistic ideology, pet hates or a concern to get square.

Most of the decisions that Australian Governments have made in recent years in relation to arts funding and access to arts education have had little to do with evidence, reason or rationality, but are related to the knee-jerk, ideological, hateful or vengeful notions that Williams writes of. The distain that the current conservative Australian government has demonstrated through its actions against the Australian arts industry in recent years largely stems from a widely held but unstated view that the arts industry is an obstacle in the path of future electability and of the implementation of their policy objectives, particularly their more authoritarian and divisive ones. As the arts has been shown to strengthen empathy and bring people together whilst encouraging the populace to challenge the status quo, one can see why our more conservative and ideologically driven elected representatives simply hate the arts – but this is a post for another day.

As most cultured people understand, the real value of an arts education has little to do with money, and the provision of false economic arguments as a pretext to cut arts funding or access to arts education needs to stop. We need to call bullshit on politicians who use the uninformed excuse of “not meeting job market requirements” to reducing arts education access or funding and we also need to get more cultured people into our parliaments.

Over the next two years I will be conducting some academic research into the skills that people learn from creative arts courses and how these skills are transferable to non-arts related industries. If you are interested in contributing to the research, please contact me or connect via the social media detailed below this post. As the basis for my research I intend to survey a large number of people who studied creative arts at tertiary level but who now work in unrelated or semi related industries; if this is you – please get in touch or follow this blog!

Related:

Posts about music education
Posts about the value of the arts
Posts about the Australian arts industry
Posts about Australian politics

Sources:

[1]  Birmingham, S, 2016, Minister defends education cuts, Artsub.com, publiched 26 October 2016, accessed online 13 February 2017 at http://www.artshub.com.au/education/news-article/opinions-and-analysis/arts-education/simon-birmingham/minister-defends-education-cuts-252475?platform=hootsuite (paywall)

photo credit: Bosc d’Anjou More bureaucrats via photopin (license)

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