Bridging the Great Divides

Created on 27/3/2008

Forgive me as I’ve only had a couple of days to prepare my presentation so there hasn’t been much time for research, reflection or checking but I trust I haven’t made too many mistakes, and if I have, please be patient with me. I feel a bit like a football substitute, brought on to score a goal quickly and then get off.

My slides are simply to paint a picture of the creative environment we inhabit and I shall primarily be talking to you today from my prepared notes.

The UK’s creative sector is growing at twice the pace of the rest of the economy. The creative sector is no longer a poor relation of bigger, more responsible, senior sectors of industry. We are it! We have arrived. We are bigger than cars, steel and almost any other sector. We are now the big boys of growth. In London, one of the world cities, we are over 10% of the entire economic scene, with a worth measured in billions, and employ several hundreds of thousands of people. Even companies like BT consider themselves part of this phenomenon. I met their Chief Executive recently and he told me that he feels he is the head of an entertainment company and that communications were what he would one day soon have to provide for free.

It’s only natural that young people want to join this vibrant sector, want to learn about it, and then inhabit it for the rest of their careers. Culture informs our lives, and feeds into every aspect of them. Virtually no young person does not own a mobile phone, an MP3 player, a games console, a TV a DVD player and, of course, a computer. Through all of them pours interactive creative output in an unending stream. Today’s task is not to discuss the reason for this personalized electronic infusion but to understand the young consumers.

I am a passionate devotee of the creative arts. We are all the better for the creation, viewing and appreciation of them in all their forms. I am of the view that people blessed with creative abilities, drive, appreciation and instinct are a force for good in our world. I have, to that end created a new entity called bCreative where we celebrate creativity in all its forms. I have spent my life writing and making films of all types and teaching others how best to do so themselves. However I am not here to self advertise, although I will, given half a chance.

Instead I want to debate how we can best share the creative instinct within an academic context reinforced within a religious or moral construct. Of course all rules are best exemplified by a story to demonstrate the point, and it is said that Adolf Hitler was appreciative of the arts. As the zany Nazi German New York character in Mel Brooks “The Producers” describes the difference between Hitler and Churchill and their artistic abilities thus, “Churchill, you call him a painter, Hitler he was a painter, he could paint an entire room, two coats, one afternoon!”

Last Autumn I was walking through the campus of my then new FE College in which I was going to serve as a part time lecturer. My academic background to that point has been at HE level, and I have also been a film- maker and writer and toiled in the corporate world. I have worked occasionally with the OUVS in various guises and traveled the world extensively as a filmmaker, writer and educator. I was now going to lecture to various FE media classes. I had just agreed to do some work with the OCR I thought it would benefit me to learn from teaching at younger levels, between Year 11 GCSE groups on through BTEC’s, National Awards, National Diplomas and Foundation Degrees. I also thought it might be fun but I soon realized that previously I had been spoiled, having led the film production courses at the Bournemouth and Northern Film Schools. There we had our pick of the best and the brightest, amongst the most motivated and able film and media production students in the world. Thereafter I directed the behemoth Media Production Centre at the University of East London, servicing the media needs of thousands from within my beautiful air conditioned office where I could muse on the finer points of media and creative teaching whilst looking on the changing moods of the River Thames. Now I trudged across a very different vista, the mud-splattered college, more of a building site than a cloistered hall of academe. The students looked more bovine than eager. They dripped social worker from their knuckles, which dragged alarmingly close to the floor. They smoked even though this was prohibited, they swore, even though this was not permitted, they spat on the floor, despite this being both foul and a health hazard. They had very little to recommend them. To paraphrase a Winston Churchill quote, “They have all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

There is a difference between right and wrong. One of the places these values must now be taught is our place of learning. This is considered controversial, but one wonders why. I imagine it wouldn’t even be a subject for discussion if families had succeeded in inculcating a responsible attitude and into the young.

I come from an interventionist, muscular Judeo Christian left of centre background. As a younger man, together with others, I sought out National Socialists to convince them of the error of their ways using my fists. I didn’t do so out of bravery, as I was often very nervous, but because I thought you had to do bad things to bad people to stop them early. As an older man I use my heart and brain to achieve the same end. You must never wait to beat ignorance as it will grow and morph into hate, prejudice and victimization. In education you must seek to teach the whole person, not just the subject on the curriculum. You should try and create a moral geography for them to explore. We might well not always do what’s right, the Lord alone knows how very weak I am, but at least we should try and understand the differences between right and wrong. This belief system dictates that you don’t walk past the unacceptable but make your objection known. I stopped a young man who spat on the ground and told him that this was a disgusting and unacceptable way to behave, as it was both unhealthy to others and made him look silly. There was a moment when he considered doing something nasty to me but then he relented, smiled and apologized, his friends took note. A very small victory, but nevertheless I was reinforced in the view that you stop aberrant behavior immediately or not at all. I was not shocked, or even moderately surprised that at my first lecture attendance was very low, and many students rolled in late, listening to their MP3 players, talking on their mobile phones or to each other. I was disappointed, and frankly quite insulted. In the armed services you salute the badge, not the man. Your position as a teacher warrants common courtesy. How do you set about achieving this?

I formed the view that before one can coherently teach such a group you have to create a moral topography, setting out the parameters, the borders of acceptable behavior. I talked to my peers. Most of them were bowed by the weight of trying and failing to work within systems that creaked with inadequacies. I come from a film making background where punctuality, attendance, honesty and top performance are demanded all the time. These would be my building blocks. My message being that if you didn’t meet these simple media demands you were not worthy to study these subjects. Luckily for me, there were two other lecturers with similar
views, one is a born again Christian, but although our observances are different our values are similar. The other person who joined our informal, ad hoc group of like-minded souls was a Moslem young woman. A strange team indeed, heard the one about the Jewish middle-aged man, the young Greek Cypriot born again Christian woman and the Islamic girl whose family came from Sri Lanka. But we shared a desire for “old fashioned” or core values.

We shared some similar rules, and these were simple and straightforward. No lateness would be tolerated, no swearing, no MP3’s or mobile phones and no gossiping in class. Non-attendance without an accepted reason had to end. Work not handed in on time would fail that unit. We all felt that we needed to weed out those students who were simply in the wrong place studying the wrong course and remove others from the student number who saw media study as a soft option, and this was quickly achieved. The results for the vast bulk that remained with us were astonishing and positive. I shall cite some of these a bit later. Most interesting and rewarding for me was the fact that the 20% or so of my students who wanted media jobs when I started to teach them had grown to more than 80% by the time I left the college.

There are many ways in which we pass on knowledge. The British convention is that we generally break this down into two main areas, theory and practice, we label the latter, vocational, and there is a definite diminutive contained in the word, vocational. It is as if those who go on to practice are somehow the intellectual inferior of those that study and theorise on that practice; but we are left asking how there will be something to deconstruct if no one is there to facilitate the construct. There has also long been a separation of these so that they now form a divide, more like a chasm within our academic institutions. These are characterised by many as follows, if we are from the Russell Group or its devotees, we are more pure than the driven academic snow, and we, naturally assume the languid air of Oxbridge and try to turn the study of the arts into a purely theoretical, deconstructive construct. If we have our origins within the old Polytechnics the likelihood is that we are supposed to have swallowed the opposite view, we only teach button pushers so that they can go and get a job in media.

My contention is that we should be striving to do the exact opposite. We must seek to use the teaching of the creative arts to help students explore the possibilities and thinking this space allows them to study and understand, morally and within a social context, the complexities of humanity. The last six months has seen me striving to do this in this local FE College. I had, with some success, explored similar ideas at HE, in institutions known more for their practical abilities to teach the best young talent how to produce media rather than how to read that media. I believe it is of even more importance to explore at all available levels, our place within the universal issues, such as racism and morality. It is not enough to teach how students can best produce creative media unless they have some understanding of why they should do so other than to purely entertain and how such creative output can be used to affect themselves and the society they inhabit.

This supposed divide between the how and the why has its equivalence in Germany. I have just returned from Berlin where one of my hosts from the Ministry of Culture was of mixed German and Jewish parentage. I asked her if she therefore had a terrific ability to tell jokes from her Jewish side but an inability to understand them being half German? I felt enabled to make this statement as my family is Jewish and had spent almost a thousand years in Germany. Although by tradition and culture and possibly race I feel Jewish and middle European I also feel there is no contradiction in my feeling British. What does all traditional religion tell us, that there is a moral parameter, there is a difference between right and wrong, and some form of deity or group ideology to judge our actions. At the college I was lecturing part time at these articles of faith had, or were all breaking down. It was accepted, for the sake of a quiet life, when a student swore in class, or spat on the floor outside, or smoked in a non-smoking area, or was not punctual, or simply did what they wanted to do. I had never seen anything like it and, I suspect, this is the underbelly that we all want to disappear, or sweep under the collective carpet.

There is a contradiction in the British F and HE systems and how the funding systems work. The UK has not suffered from a lack of general funding for more than a decade. In fact it has been awash with certain types of money. It’s what kind of money, applied how, that has been, and remains the problem. I have visited, worked at or examined at many institutions in this country and there are new buildings going up, or recently constructed everywhere. These capital projects cost billions of pounds. We have seen waves of expenditure follow the growth of the HE sector from an historic 4% of the requisite population when I was a youth, to a figure more than ten times that number now. What doesn’t track is the revenue spending to go along with it. Therefore we have built a great many new buildings, fill them with fantastic hardware but are hard pushed to staff it strategically as we would like or use the correct software. This was exacerbated by rather too much focus on the RAE and other, arcane, systems of evaluation that have not, sometimes delivered as they might. This has resulted in strange anomalies. My department in UEL was top rated for research. It also had a stellar publication record. Nevertheless many of its students were not vocationally taught to a sufficient level. We constructed a magnificent Docklands campus where we were great in certain disciplines, but lacked such excellence alarmingly in others. We could recruit from around the world but our retention rates were alarmingly poor. Of course, this is part of a bigger picture of many such institutions with similar problems and we’re not here to deal with those here other than to state that there is an obvious, urgent and long term need for universities to be dealing with these problems at a local and not national area.

The English higher education system in general rewards form filling, target achievement, throughput and exit velocity more than it does excellence. I note with satisfaction that some of the beacons of old fashioned getting it right, are how it’s still done at the Open University, and about twenty of our other universities. These exemplify how the system could work in general for this country, if there were the will and standards. These institutions make certain that rigorous academic standards are maintained. I am convinced that their doing so has largely ensured that they continue to secure large amounts of additional funding, and the maintenance of this gold standard of quality has meant they all recruit well. That is at the macro level, whereas most of us spend the majority of our time working daily within the micro level. We can only expect to overcome the bigger problems by starting at the ground floor and building on those foundations. The one thing the failed central command economies of the past century have taught us is that top down philosophies in big institutions like education simply does not work. An example of how wrong this is all going is that the system is simply dysfunctional. What is required is either not possible or cannot be achieved. I was just informed that the college expected me, like all their lecturers, to prepare a lesson plan broken down into twenty-minute sections, even if the lesson was three hours long, and this had to be validated, in detail. There had to be an Assignment Brief and this had to be validated, in detail. This had to fit within a Scheme of Work, and this had to be validated, in detail. I could go on but I think you get the picture. Added to this was when I was faced with a student with any learning difficulties I was to give up to half my lesson time to that student exclusively. I asked whether, if I had two such students I would then have no time for anyone else.

I will never forget my first lessons at the college. I set about trying to find out more about the students, their levels of knowledge and interests. I discovered a great divide between their ideas of what creative arts are, and what their place within them could be. There was an appreciation, an enjoyment of movies, music and some television, but not for much more than sheer visceral pleasure. There was no understanding of why they liked something, no deeper grasp of what an artist might be trying to say, or why. No inkling that they were participating in an ongoing creative interaction that affected every aspects of their lifestyles.

I set about my bridge building by giving the students a few simple tests on the subjects at hand and their scores averaged well below 40%, which was simply not an acceptable base level. I also asked them about themselves and what they thought was the purpose of the creative industries, most specifically with regards to TV, newspapers, radio and advertising. Their responses indicated that they had never been asked to seriously consider such subjects although all of these issues should have been at the core of their courses. Most disturbing to me, when I asked them about their take on conspiracy theories there was a general consensus that 9/11 was an American fabrication and the moon landings were faked. Conversely the same students believed there had been Alien abductions and UFO sightings were definitely real. I asked all of them for any proof of any of these statements and all pointed to me to the “net”. What they meant was that their had been videos posted on You Tube etc. which made such claims, and this being their source, it was believed. Not only was there no rigor, there was little self-discipline, no understanding of gathering evidence to support any argument. When I asked one of the students why she believed in the crop circles and not the existence of man’s landings on the moon she told me that her dad had told her about the former, and he knew about these things, and she’d seen a part of documentary on You Tube which said that the Americans fakes the landings, and you could tell by the fact that their flag was “mistakenly” taut, when, in fact there was no air to blow it in that direction on the moon. I pointed out that this was not a mistake and that NASA had prepared the flag to look good in zero atmospheres. Why would students of any level ignore the evidence provided by regular media but accept unknown sources, or electronic gossip, buzz marketing and simple anonymous malice. The reason is that people are unable to differentiate between the sheer proliferations of sources pouring toward them in an unending torrent. What looks good, panders to baser instincts, looks cool and entertains is often given greater credence than formal, forensic evidence, if the latter is perceived as boring.

My recent direct experience touches on various FE levels of study I was teaching. Elements in which these students were particularly weak were Key Skills, particularly writing ability, research and anything theoretical. Therefore whatever else we did regarding the moral questions had to include communication in writing that I would reinforce by creating a vigorous verbal debating group. It was essential that we used popular language rather than the language of film, media or communication, the subjects I was covering, to enable this process. We wanted to make complex thought processes as accessible as possible, as easily as we could.

Apart from all the reasons I have touched upon earlier I was very disturbed to witness various forms of overt and covert racism between the students. Therefore there were reasons beyond the theoretical for me to address these issues. I used very simple systems to explore these ideas in class and they centered on our classes watching films, which we then debated and they then wrote about. I picked films that examined important social issues and did so dramatically. The films were, “This is England” and “La Haine” about racism in England and France, “Pierpont” regarding capital punishment and “We Were Soldiers” touching on heroism of different types and patriotism. All touched on the human condition and dispensed with stereotypes. As each film was playing I would write headings for them to include in their essays. The idea being to stimulate thought regarding issues that touch all our lives and to make the students aware of themselves within the larger society. By picking films from three countries we were immediately able to dispense with racial stereotypes about the French, Americans, Arabs, Jews, Vietnamese and others. It opened the student eyes regarding violence, capital punishment, sexual politics and the differences between people being less important than that which they have in common.

Although I cannot claim to have created or discovered forensic evidence with regards to the impact that this and other initiatives had on these students we can at a base level inform you that the students themselves believe it has changed their perceptions. Our attendance, punctuality and achievement results all became exemplars. After shaking out some students, who perhaps, in retrospect should not have been there in the first place, we achieved near 100% attendance and punctuality and delivery of on-time work. The results were about 20% higher than those previously achieved. The students told me they had never been happier, and this, for me, was perhaps the biggest reward. They now clearly understood the purpose of their course of study and what they should be gaining from it.