During a break in a life-drawing group, a young woman complained to me listlessly about her drawing. The naked figure she’d sketched so concentratedly for two hours looked disconnected, his hand facing towards us over the back of a chair resembled a limp rubber glove. I did not agree with her that it was a failure, offer any advice on how to improve it in future or suggest she take drawing lessons. I know better than that.
Most people don’t sit down at a piano and expect to be able to play it without some tuition but with drawing and painting they do, besides, unlike music, in visual art it is a hard rule that everyone’s work is of equal value, there is no such thing as good or bad. In fact, if it’s bad, hand looking like a rubber glove, it’s probably very good.
She admired my drawing and I did tell her that I’d been to some excellent classes in London at Heatherley’s School of Art in Chelsea. I admitted that I hadn’t exactly enjoyed all the classes as they’d been so tough; full of people who were more accomplished than I was, and highly competitive.
Sometimes you almost had to fight to see the model, and some students, mostly wealthy women, sported a canvas the size of schooner sails. Women whose husbands own half of Herefordshire can be very challenging if you stand in the spot they want. The teacher in one class had been fearsome, exacting and unfriendly. In his classes I quaked, perspired, panicked and almost cried. I did, however, learn a great deal about oil paint that I couldn’t have got from a book or by just doing it by myself.
The girl looked shocked. ‘I would never want to put myself through that sort of pain,’ she said, as if I was some kind of masochist.
‘I’d hate that kind of teacher. I think education is all about creating a safe-space, where people can develop their own creative ideas.’
Even if they are rubbish. I didn’t say. In contemporary art there is no rubbish. What you think is bogus balderdash might be worth more than your house. It was amazing listening to her, just how long that idea about the value of untutored creativity has hung on. The new paradigm of natural ability unsullied by learning arrived here from the USA, via Frankfurt, in the 1960s, about forty years before the girl I was speaking to was born. She still believes in it passionately, even if the evidence of her eyes and even her heart says otherwise.
The notion of natural talent, or the delicate bloom of ignorance as Oscar Wilde put it, is still with us, blooming away, even though it has led us to increased illiteracy, and a place at the bottom of the international league tables for educational attainment. In the arts, at least, teachers no longer teach. I have heard that there is a shortage of maths teachers and most British children never come across physics, so that is surely part of the same ethos of ‘natural’, i.e. none, education.
On June 22nd this year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England published its first set of ratings for the Teaching Excellence Framework. In ordinary English that just means how effective the tuition was.
It revealed that just over half of UK universities are offering quality teaching to their students: fifty nine providers were rated ‘gold’, 116 rated ‘silver’ and 56 fell down to ‘bronze’.
Of the twenty one Russell Group universities, just eight (38 per cent) were given a gold rating, including Oxford and Cambridge; ten (48 per cent) were awarded silver and three (14 per cent) achieved a bronze. More than half of Russell Group institutions, considered the best in the country, did not score a gold rating.
The bronze dunce’s hat went to the London School of Economics (LSE), once a leading university with an international reputation, Southampton, Liverpool, and Goldsmiths, which has an art department providing no tuition at all. Also providing rock bottom teaching was the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) whose students from the developing world learn about the evils of economic imperialism. Sadly art schools were not included in the survey.
Under the old paradigm of my parent’s generation, education was mostly about fear, terror in some cases, and possible failure. Even when I was at school, we were still told to take mistakes in the right spirit and likewise good advice. Our imaginations were fuelled by the fear of failure and competitive aspiration. All that has been swept away; learning now is about safety and feeling good about yourself. Art education has become a gigantic fridge where everyone may stick up their work proudly.
Puzzlingly, not all vestiges of that old paradigm have gone. The teacher/ pupil relationship, abolished in schools and colleges, is still there in the form of fees. Even if there is no teaching and you don’t manage to learn anything, you will pay through the nose.
At Goldsmiths you will be charged £9,250 a year. Oxford UK students pay £9,000 plus college fees. Overseas students, mostly children of colonial elites, have to find between £15,755 and £23,190. At the LSE the tuition fees for new overseas (non-EU) undergraduates in 2017 are £18,408 for the first year. The overseas fee usually rises by between 2.5 per cent and 4 per cent each year.
At a former polytechnic such as Oxford Brooks you have to cough up £9,250 even if transgendered, an important new obsession of theirs according to their online hand-book. Their art foundation degree, where they do not teach painting or drawing, is £7,000 a year.
As teaching as a concept has largely been abolished in favour of a non-hierarchical ‘facilitator’, bringing out what is already within the student, one must ask, what are the students paying for? Is it for the pleasure of meeting fellow students in a pleasant environment other than school?
As most students and academics are also anti-capitalist, it seems an anomaly that they should want to go on studying in formal institutions where fees, often for old rope, continually rise. It’s surely time for a new paradigm entirely; of sitting under trees in the fresh air and enjoying letting one’s natural creativity flow freely, or going out to work and junking the idea of education entirely. After all it is only an antiquated social construct, and never got British people very far.
We now live in a slave wage economy where most jobs are done for us at very little cost, and all knowledge may be found on Google. Better leave the book learning to the foreigners who somehow now do knowledge and skills so much better than we do.
Or perhaps it’s time for universities and colleges of further education to charge fees based on results alone, judged by our international foreign competitors. After all they have nothing to fear. In skills and basic learning we are now naturally talented, feeling fine and years behind the rest.