Guest Post: “Why study the arts?”

This is a big question. I would start preparing an answer by claiming that Art connects to all areas of knowledge, and that it expresses the otherwise unsayable. This makes it very useful!

Dominic Hawley, Director of Music and teacher of Theory of Knowledge at Cheltenham Ladies’ College tries the answer this increasingly debated question.

The attempts to explain universal truths by science, philosophy and religion, often fall short, as the concepts themselves are abstract, and descriptions are limited by literalism and the boundaries of words; and yet, there are great parallels between cosmologists, quantum physicists and artists. Artistic and Scientific imagination seem to coalesce when the theories of the Cosmos and quanta are explored through maths and artistic media – especially music.

Perhaps Music can offer a wordless expression of elemental truths. Oddly, as soon as one tries to impose translation, the truth is lost, as it is beyond rational containment; we grasp at it, like a fading dream. Abstract art comes close to music’s transcendence of the boundaries of ignorance. Those who scoff at a red square of paint on a canvass, ought to consider that the image might have more chance of expressing the essence of humanity, than 1,000 words.

As a composer with a deep interest in philosophy and science, I cannot divorce art from the world around me. A recent composition, founded on the concept of Spacetime, helped me to commune, deeply, with Einstein, despite my superficial level of scientific understanding. A detailed, abstract pencilled sketch of connections in the brain might help deepen factual learning, to complement study of neuro-science.

If Leonardo da Vinci were at school in 21st century, how would we classify him? Possible answers include: anatomist; inventor; scientist; designer; project manager; painter; cartoonist; sculptor; radical thinker; visionary and dilettante.

What might happen to him if, aged 13, a well-meaning head teacher were to tell him to concentrate on sciences and to drop ‘creative’ subjects, or vice versa? What if many modern could-be geniuses, whose minds do not naturally distinguish between areas of knowledge, are currently being told to study certain groups of subjects and to avoid others? Brunelleschi is famous for designing and building the dome on top of the Duomo in Florence. But what was he? An architect, a designer, a goldsmith, an engineer, a scientist, a mathematician, a ship builder…?

In truth, I am talking about connections within the mind, often represented in schemes of work as “cross-curricular learning”; I assume the term just means “learning”. Other terms include “enrichment” and “independent learning”, as if these are something you only do at the weekend. Again, I assume such words just stand for “learning”. My arguments are centred on the notion that our conscious minds attempt to limit the extraordinary power of our whole mind. We try to understand outcome by predicting it.

It is worth remembering that when we offer children “standard advice” there is no such thing as a standard child; and, if there is such a thing as a “median” child, she is completely unique! Education is about thinking. It is about questioning. It is about experimentation. It is about testing information for validity or absolutism. It is not about passivity and pure absorption.

Schools should lay on regular lessons in epistemology and thinking, for every age. These sessions, ideally, would ask for no writing, no academic testing; and there would be no prescribed outcome. The type of child who might ask, “What do I need to know?” does so because of the teacher’s approach. The same child would not ask this question in a weekly, free-thinking, epistemology class. Instead, she would never question its validity.

WIFM (“What’s in it for me”), as a motivational tool is, fundamentally flawed (although I can see its value in extremely challenging school environments). All human beings want to learn, it is a characteristic of the human condition. Teachers should not stand in the way of learning. They should not list areas of knowledge hierarchically, nor should they censor passion for many, varied subjects. The Arts help science; science helps the Arts.

Teachers should just design programmes which unleash the thinking power of the child. The rest is child’s play.


Please tell you your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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