Readers discuss the benfits that can be gained from studying the arts
How I agree with Susanna Rustin (Why study English? We’re poorer in every sense without it, 11 February)! A retired teacher, I hear the arguments for studying Stem subjects frequently put forward as self-explanatory. But are science graduates necessarily more employable than someone who has spent her degree years reading widely, analysing language, developing sound aesthetic judgment, defending her opinions in seminars, and learning how to express them in lucid, cogent and elegant prose in weekly essays?
Many ex-pupils I hear about who have arts degrees are successful in business, academia, the law, novel writing, and the arts. One is even running a department in the Guardian.
All university degrees give training in the discovering of knowledge, in the practice of self-expression, and in the increasing of self-confidence. What the study of English literature almost uniquely involves, however, is the vicarious experiencing of lives, relationships and times other than one’s own.
Through imaginative exploration of the ideas of works of literature, through sensitive analysis of language and form, and comparison of works from different periods, the student of English is brought to a knowledge of a world wider than her own, and a deeper empathy with others. Her subject is, after all, the human condition itself.
This seems to me a priceless achievement, and one that is all too lacking in today’s world, dominated as it is by values of competition and gain, and dismissive of the needs of others.
• It’s no surprise that “some of the enthusiasm long associated with English has drained away”. As an English tutor I have witnessed young people’s interest in reading being eroded by the current government’s curriculum changes, particularly for GCSE. The reversion to 100% exam assessment and the elimination of a coursework element for English language has removed the joy element, with analysis of texts for the sake of it now the only priority. Teenagers no longer enjoy reading – in fact, most don’t read at all – because it has become such a chore at school.
Michael Gove, in his infamous tenure as education secretary, has a lot to answer for. In poisoning the syllabus, including the ridiculously narrow-minded restriction to the reading of only British authors – thereby eliminating at a stroke great writers such as Steinbeck and García Marquez – he has also poisoned today’s youth against the beauty of books.
• Jess Gillam makes a powerful case for music being central to the education system (Letters, 11 February), and she is an outstanding example of the value of state funding of music education. Dance, drama, art, all the creative arts, develop the lifeskills she lists, most of which are, in addition, skills employers need. Quite apart from the intrinsic value of the creative arts there is considerable research evidence that pupils’ engagement in them raises their performance in mainstream curriculum subjects and improves the confidence of less academic students.
More generally, as Susanna Rustin argues, academic studies in English and the humanities encourage creativity and critical thinking, important in themselves yet also valuable skills for developing enterprise and for the professions. Rigid formulaic concentration on hard skills reduces both personal development and the dynamic perspective essential for our society and economy to thrive in these difficult times.
Newby Wiske, North Yorkshire
• Jess Gillam is very modest about the phenomenal career she has begun to build. With Awards for Young Musicians, I established the award that supported Jess in her teens. Having benefited from similar funding as a student at junior conservatoire, I know it is vital that children from less privileged backgrounds are afforded these opportunities. I chose not to become a professional musician, but playing in an orchestra remains the most important part of my life. Donors like me and musicians like Jess are fortunate to have charities such as Awards for Young Musicians. In the face of savage cuts, they strain every sinew to support music teachers in schools – but this is work they should not have to do.
• Jess Gillam’s letter strikes a chord with Making Music members – mostly adult leisure-time music groups in the community.
Our member groups (over 3,500) represent an estimated quarter of the total number of music groups in the UK, and at an average membership of 57 individuals, which means that at least 800,000 individuals participate in musical activity in their local area regularly.
Many have had a lifetime of enjoyment, social connection and wellbeing benefits through singing in a choir or playing in a brass band, ukulele group or orchestra; and their communities have benefited too: providing opportunities for people to get together, making areas attractive for potential residents and businesses, and contributing financially to the sustainability of venues, music shops, restaurants and more.
But our members are worried: music education, as Jess rightly points out, is in crisis. Very soon it will only be those children whose parents are able to pay or are adept at seeking out services because they already understand what music can bring to their children’s lives who can access music education.
And that means not just the professional music sector, the export market and the UK’s soft power suffer, but something much closer to home: everyone’s local community will be the poorer.
There will be no brass band to play carols at Christmas, no choir to accompany the civic occasion, the funeral, the wedding, the school or village fête.
Lip service and piecemeal funding for a project here or there is not enough: sustained investment is necessary to guarantee access for all – and therefore benefits for all later in their life. The NHS and social care sector acknowledge that such an investment will save them millions of pounds in future. Ten minutes’ practice a day keeps the doctor away…
Chief executive, Making Music (and third cornet in the Crystal Palace Progress Band)