first published as “Obama’s arts report” in ArtsProfessional on 15 July 2011
America has a rather Marmite-ish place in UK culture these days. Do you love it because of Barack and Michelle, or hate it because of the US military’s various global entanglements?
Such musings are merely for the punters, though. Between Whitehall and the White House, it’s all about the love, as underscored recently during Obama’s state visit: witness the table tennis, the backslapping bonhomie and of course, the BBQ. If you believe the headlines, there is nothing of significance, it seems, that Dave and Barack can’t share a high-five over.
Well, almost nothing. If the subject of arts education popped up over burgers at Downing Street recently, there may have been just the slightest awkward moment between the ‘essential’ friends. Because just as the Coalition is busily conducting a kind of arts pogrom within the nation’s education system, Obama arrived on our shores only a few weeks after his office released a landmark report called Reinvesting in Arts Education – Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.
‘Landmark’ isn’t too strong a word, nor is bold. Here we are, still clawing our way out of the Great Recession and the air thick with phrases like ‘back to basics’ and ‘hard choices’, and along comes a presidentially-commissioned study that recommends “expanding in-school opportunities for teaching artists,” and utilising government policies “to reinforce the place of arts in education.” Some offerings will brim with irony for artists and educators here: the language supporting the recommendation, “Develop the field of arts integration,” for instance, could have been lifted from our very own, recently defunded Creative Partnerships programme.
And yet the report itself is only partly about the arts. Leave aside the fact that the Obama report is the product of a star-studded committee that includes artists, of course, but also philanthropists, corporate titans and academics. Leave aside, too, that Obama sent his popular and charismatic wife, Michelle, on the road to announce and promote its findings.
What makes the Obama report worth our notice is its studied, relentless emphasis on the arts as essential fuel for the national engine of prosperity. Yes, the arts “remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common.” But for every such conservative-baiting pronouncement, one finds harder-edged language and data that directly links strong arts education provision with achievement, innovation and behaviour.
In other words, the Obama report isn’t merely an example of the president’s crazy liberal side making a token appearance. Sprinkled generously across an ocean of statistics are quotes and stats from think-tanky economic studies invariably fretting about America’s competitive future…and linking a happy version of that future directly to arts education. The report’s foreward says it best: “To succeed today and in the future, America’s children will need to be inventive, resourceful, and imaginative,” writes US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The best way to foster that creativity is through arts education.”
Hard to imagine Michael Gove thinking such thoughts, let alone making them public. On the contrary, Gove and his colleagues are doing their level best to strangle arts provision for future generations of young people. Not only has government virtually eliminated support for university-level arts teaching, its new English baccalaureate—soon to be de rigueur in the nation’s secondary schools—makes absolutely no mention of the arts at all (although note, in this link, the irony of Arne Duncan being quoted in support of the E-bacc).
As with so much else between the UK and US, the Obama report does not translate perfectly to circumstances here. But we don’t need it to: there are already piles of data, evidence, reports and studies supporting the critical role the arts play in shaping a socioeconomically robust, modern Britain. Particularly powerful is the evidence linking arts provision to marked improvements in behaviour and attainment among otherwise low-achieving children, although it’s no secret to arts educators that such children usually do flower in the arts (and often after teachers of more ‘traditional’ subjects have written them off.)
Above all, the Obama report sets an example for strong national leadership in recognition of the essential role of the arts in building a successful modern nation. It also begs two very big and scary questions. Where is the political leadership here—from anyone, in any party—to fight for a new value proposition for the arts, particularly in the context of education? And if that doesn’t happen, how will it take before the UK’s economic competitiveness and social cohesion begin to deteriorate irreparably as a result?