All that is solid melts into Zoom: five thoughts on cultural education in a Covid-shaped world

26 June 2020

Joe Hallgarten, Principal Consultant at the Education Development Trust and a member of the CLA Advisory Panel writes here in a personal capacity about how we can respond to a ‘pandemic of certainty’.

  1. If there’s one thing that Covid-19 has proved, it is that I was right.
  2. If there’s one thing that lockdown is showing, it’s that I am both humble and resilient, and that the thing I do is needed more than ever.
  3. Although I don’t quite understand the science, I’m pretty sure the science will prove my thing to be true.
  4. If there is one thing that government should prioritise at the moment, it’s my thing.
  5. If there is one good thing that might come out of the crisis, it’s that good thing I’ve always wanted to happen.

Above is your DIY guide to writing a COVID-19 opinion piece. Throw in a self-deprecating anecdote about your home life; pepper your opinions with some curve-flattening metaphors; and above all, act like you’re really, really sure.

Maybe I’ve missed the more nuanced views, but if feels like the only people out there – in my echo chambered world at any rate – who admit that they can’t be sure are those with the most wisdom to express some degree of certainty – our epidemiologists and other medical scientists. Too many other people are using this crisis to justify their own existing view of the world’s dystopia, and already-formed hopes for a future utopia. Last month, provoked by the boundless self-belief of a famous economist in a webinar, I posted this question:

There is a pandemic of certainty that doesn’t really align with the confusion of times. To rephrase my question above:  

‘What belief have you had to furlough – not necessarily sack off entirely, but stop working with for the moment?’

I’m not sure I have a personal answer yet, but I’m also wondering what beliefs might the arts need to furlough? If as the famous quote goes, ‘art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted’, the weight of the arts world’s current efforts, and people’s absorption and participation in culture, are probably geared more towards the former than the latter. Mine certainly is. I’m still on four chords on a guitar, and my one attempt at watching theatre over TV put me to sleep.

But perhaps, beyond this comfort blanket, the arts has a more important provocative, disturbing role. In a time where so much of our lives needs certainty, security and precision, can the arts harness its right to, as so many artists have articulated to ‘not know’, or ‘make things more difficult’. The joy of Nina Simone’s New World Coming is that I can never be sure whether she is preaching prediction, hope, anger or delusion. Perhaps art’s unique role here is to curate existing work or create new work that retains some ‘artistic distancing’, drawing itself away from COVID-fuelled mania about what next and instead offering, as Seamus Heaney famously wrote ‘a door into the dark’.

So it’s with some trepidation that I’m answering the call in Jacqui’s excellent blog for ‘solid solutions’. It feels like all that is solid has melted into Zoom. But here are five ideas that might help those passionate about cultural education to plan their next moves.

First, just try and be part of normality. Amidst all the ‘this changes everything’ hype-topia that fellow education soothsayers are guilty of, many kids are just looking forward to going back to normal. Normal lessons; normal moans from and about teachers; normal gossip on journeys to and from school; normal hours when your parents aren’t around to irritate you. Whatever you were planning on doing with schools and young people a few weeks ago is probably still worth doing now. Some may want to use art to reflect on the strangeness of the last few weeks. But for many, the Covid-19 frame will be forced, reductive and dispiriting.

Perhaps the best thing that artists and arts teachers can do is make work that supports de-isolation; go to the boundaries of what people are allowed to do together – as makers and watchers -  whilst still allowing for individual reflection and creation (remember, many family situations means that many children have experienced anything but isolation during lockdown). Then make great art for and with young people that deserves and demands an audience. It’s the connections between performance and audience that are impervious to any two-metre rules.

Second, show some love to those children whom Andy Hargeaves has described as ‘just above the line’ – pupils who are probably never known to social services or even learning mentors. They tend to quietly tolerate and survive school without people noticing them very much. But they may have spent the last few weeks, as Seamus Heaney wrote, ‘lost, unhappy and at home’ (other poets are available). The most vulnerable, especially in some schools, will access and need all sorts of support, some of which should be led by trained therapists, rather than artists. But there will be a group of ‘newly vulnerable’, including those still shielding family members, for whom the attention of artists and exposure to artistic experiences could be of unexpected benefit.

Third, make sure you get paid. Be as commercially hard-headed as you can be in your dealings with schools, whether you are an organisation or an individual. Yes, schools will and always will feel financial pinches, and some may have been adversely affected financially by the recent crises. But some have quietly benefitted (for instance, from the reduction in supply teacher bills). And none have come anywhere near the and hardships that arts organisations and artists are facing. The education sector will need many things as they transition post-lockdown, but the time-rich philanthropy of money-poor artists shouldn’t be one of them.

Fourth, try and muscle in on bigger, school-led conversations about curriculum. This was already a hot topic, but the crisis may have freed schools from the strangehold of a reductive Ofsted-tramlined approach towards something more mission driven. Some interesting spaces and approaches are emerging – for instance the notion of a ‘recovery curriculum’, and school leaders have (although they might not admit it in public) more time than usual to consider purpose, mission and curriculum. Artists and organisations can help frame the debate, consider alternatives, think beyond current boundaries, especially if they temporarily drop any attempts to advocate specifically for cultural education or, even worse, for specific artforms.

Finally, use your newly finessed online skills to work globally. I’ve written before about the need to encourage and enable lower income countries such as Sierra Leone to place arts learning at the heart of their education systems, and to mobilise the world’s educators and artists to support these endeavours. My current international work, including my recent reviews on how Covid-19 responses can learn from the Ebola crisis, and from education conflicts and emergencies, has made me realise how online collaboration with partners from the global south, rather than the tempting fly-in support, can increase local control and ownership of programmes. Whilst face to face collaboration may be difficult, can British cultural educators find online ways to work with artist partners in low income countries, using arts learning as part of their post-Covid recovery efforts? Other school systems are available.

So, five ideas, each about as solid as a Jellybaby on Furlough. Looking back at them now, I realise I’ve suggested each of them in other forms well before this pandemic. So this crisis has clearly proved that I was right; and if there’s five good things that artists and arts organisations can do as a result of this crisis, it’s obviously my five things.


Image credit: Fuel Theatre The Little Prince 2020