Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

The government seems hell-bent on destroying arts education in this country.

During the recession of the early 1990s, schools had their funding from government funding amputated and a musical education became a sign of a middle-class upbringing. During this latest period of financial austerity, the arts have once again been summarily dismissed as superfluous in straitened times. Conductor of the Bedforshire Youth Orchestra, Michael Rose, says music services in his area, Central Bedfordshire, are set to have budgets and teaching staff cut to zero.

More broadly, the arts are facing annihilation at the hands of a government that can only comprehend social goods in narrowly economic terms. The professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, A C Grayling, has urged the arts and humanities to "put up a fight" against these cuts, or else face destruction. But the coalition seems hell-bent on reducing policy formulation to a cost/benefit analysis, with the axe it has taken to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) being a case in point. Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said that we need to stop viewing the arts as simply costs to society. Rylance told the Times:

On the cuts issue, it seems to me that the mind shift we have to go through is to stop thinking about these things (funding higher education) as costs and start thinking about them as investments, because we are not going to get growth and a healthier society unless we invest in these things.

How are the arts of value to society? Several studies by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have explored the effects of art and music education on young children's learning. These studies showed that music instruction can help build intellectual and emotional skills, facilitate children's learning and strengthen numeracy and literacy skills.

A forthcoming study produced by the neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus concluded that schools that fail to give music a central role in their curriculum are making a mistake. Music "fundamentally shapes" brains, and can help combat the learning difficulties associated with dyslexia and autism.

The report concluded that that "long-term musical practice strengthens cognitive functions and that these functions benefit auditory skills. Musical training bolsters higher-level mechanisms that, when impaired, relate to language and literacy deficits. Thus, musical training may serve to lessen the impact of these deficits by strengthening the corticofugal system for hearing."

Not only does music aid brain development, but it also instils discipline. Many people complain that children today have short attention spans. Learning a musical instrument helps them to learn to concentrate over long periods of time. Playing in orchestras encourages team work, which is deemed by most employers to be an essential quality. Learning a musical instrument gives children a sense of achievement. Acquired self-worth could have knock-on effects in other aspects of a child's life.

The government must re-evaluate the value that it places on the arts, for we are at grave risk of losing them. Sir Thomas Carlyle's critique of utilitarian man seems particularly apt:

Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did; till the Soul is nigh choked out of him, and only a kind of Digestive, Mechanic life remains. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else: the world would indeed grind him to pieces; but cannot he fathom the Doctrine of Motives, and cunningly compute these, and mechanize them to grind the other way?

"In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism..." Britain is at risk of becoming a society that only values that which can be crudely accumulated. Must this be an inevitable consequence of the financial crisis?

 

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage