At a certain point during my secondary school education I became aware that we students were gradually dividing into two camps: those who would continue post ‘O’ level (anyone remember them?) with an arts-based curriculum, and those who were set up for the sciences.
There was no doubt as to which track I was following: Miss Jolowicz, our physics teacher, had failed to persuade me that Physics is Fun – the name of a teenage weekly she was keen for us all to subscribe to. Personally I preferred Jackie magazine. As for Chemistry, the periodic table left me cold, while I found the complexities of Russian grammar infinitely fascinating.
It was therefore decided that this dame would pursue an education in ‘the arts’ and divert completely from the path her elder brother was following: the three sciences and on to medical school. At no point was there any question of judgment, superiority or value in our respective choices. We were just different.
It seems nowadays that all that has changed. The government has decided to impose a 50% cut to arts subjects at universities, which could come into effect from this autumn. The reason according to the totally inept Education Secretary, aka Gavin Williamson, is that these are not ‘strategic priorities’.
So what are their priorities? I have learned that the savings achieved will be redirected to other areas such as nursing and computing. Now no one doubts that these are both essential and worthwhile areas of study, but in my view they are no more or less essential than literature, music, history of art, languages and philosophy.
One of the key benefits of higher education is learning to think independently and critically and being able to use your imagination and communicate. ‘Arts’ subjects actively encourage these skills, which are an essential component of adult life.
Dame V’s parents were both actors, and her mother took pains to disabuse her of the idea that acting was somehow flaky or easy. Acting requires discipline in so many areas: focus, empathy, co-operation – and the resilience to keep going when it seems the odds are stacked against you. All these are, to my mind, high priorities in life.
Then there’s the small matter of the economy. According to the Musicians Union’s national organiser for education, the music industry was worth £5.8 billion to the UK economy in 2019. Studying music at a higher level is essential if we want to produce world-class musicians. We need this sort of income to produce the tax receipts essential to training more nurses and other key workers. Not forgetting our film industry, the theatre, art, dance and literature, which all bring in much needed revenue.
There is also the risk that by cutting funding in these areas that study of them will be limited to better off or foreign students. Johnson rabbits on about ‘levelling up’. In my view he is reducing the common denominator and denigrating the value of culture itself. And this from a privileged Etonian who studied classics. His latest offspring will not be affected by any of his dad’s policies, as money will not be spared on his education. But if you’re an inner-city kid who is inspired to take your music studies further, it might not be quite so easy in future.
The picture here hints at something our Gav ought to know – at a higher level, mathematics and philosophy are inextricably linked. Arts or sciences? I don’t think he quite understands.
One final point: have any of the philistines running the country ever heard of Leonardo da Vinci: artist, inventor, scientist? I rest my case.