There is a quote seen sometimes on social media claiming that when Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding to pay for WWII, he said: “Then, what would we be fighting for?”
Of course, it’s well known that he didn’t actually say that. Someone made it up. It’s a nice idea, though, isn’t it? The idea that the arts are tied to freedom and that they are worth fighting for. But then why is it that in schools across the world the arts are still regarded as the bottom of the pile when it comes to “importance”? Or are they?
I teach drama in southeast Asia, where, outside of international schools, an arts education tends to be one focused on arts appreciation and not necessarily for preparing students for a career in the arts. So when students are able to access the arts in international schools, we see students relish it.
“Why do schools across the world still regard the arts as at the bottom of the pile?”
Perhaps it is “cultural capital” to be seen to be engaged in a more western mentality, but perhaps it is a shift in understanding across the board that, in fact, the arts are useful. Perhaps, parents want this experience for their children, too.
Standing out from the crowd is beginning to be seen as acceptable as the world becomes even more competitive. And the arts, in particular drama, are seen as the vehicle to enhance creative thinking and improve confidence. No one can argue against these being key competencies. Yet this shift is in stark contrast to the reports coming out of the UK, where there seems to be a decline in students signing up for arts subjects. Over on this side of the world, it was on the rise.
But then, Covid. During the pandemic, the teaching of the arts was deemed superfluous by many schools (and parents). Suddenly they seemed less important and reported as being “non-essential”. Events were cancelled and shows were postponed. Maybe it was just too difficult to shift these valuable experiences to an online space. The irony was surely lost on all those thinking this way as they nestled into another Netflix binge during a lockdown or went back to re-read their favourite novel. Even when back in school, masks had to be worn at all times, no singing, no moving, do not pass go…
“The irony was surely lost on all those thinking the arts were ‘non-essential’ as they nestled in to another lockdown Netflix binge.”
But we tried. My goodness, we tried. And, we failed, but then we succeeded…but success looked different. What we accomplished and produced was certainly different to what had gone before, but maybe the end game for art is different to that of other subject areas, the conversation is about the process and not just the end product.
“We are now coming out of the pandemic where young people’s social confidence is low.”
We noticed that our drama students were exceptionally resilient and adaptable. And willing to “give it a go”. They went through processes of reflection, they made work that expressed their thoughts and emotions about the themselves and the world around them, and, they were able to engage in a dialogue about it. Admittedly the “end-show” was difficult to produce, but the process that students went through certainly helped them to make sense of the situations that they were facing. It was cathartic, you might say.
We are now coming out of the pandemic where young people’s social confidence is low. Face-to-face interactions that we have all craved for so long are (hopefully) just around the corner and the face masks that have long been worn are cast off like shackles of oppression. I argue that this is the precise time for the arts to take centre stage, excuse the pun. Now is the time for students to think about and process how they feel and to listen to others about how they feel. The arts are the vessel that will allow for this to happen successfully.
So, when I am asked, “Drama, what is it useful for?”, I often reply as succinctly as I can with, quite simply, “life”. The skills you learn in drama are life skills. Creativity, adaptability, confidence, perseverance, collaboration and importantly for me, empathy. And whoever wrote those words that were (wrongly) attributed to Churchill certainly thought so, too.