Now and again something strikes me as so true, so right, so profound, that I can’t sleep. I pace the corridors of my country retreat until the early hours, mumbling away to myself.
At the same time I am, of course, wary of such feelings. I know the way my brain chemicals can leap about and do somersaults, bounce off the inside of my skull, creating all sorts of messianic thoughts.
When I think something is important, I begin to question why I think it is important, and then begin examining my values. Nothing can withstand such scrutiny. Great ideas the size of planets shrivel up into wasabi peas. By the time the maid serves breakfast, I might as well sit at the table dressed as Napoleon.
The book that caused the most recent episode was “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. I experienced so many stirrings of recognition I began to believe that my brain liked what it was reading so much that it was stamping out any embers of criticism.
It’s a huge book, but its thesis is straightforward – and please realise I am simplifying this hugely - that left brained thinking has elbowed its better half into the long grass. Left brained thinking is rational, mathematical, deductive. Right brain is empathy, intuition, emotion.
I usually despise such simplifications. And I despise this one more than most, because McGilchrist uses closely argued prose (ie a very rational left brained argument) to make his case against that very methodology.
However. I’m going to use a brilliant manoeuvre and beg your indulgence. Let’s think of this right brain/left brain stuff as a useful metaphor. Now that you’ve agreed to this, I’ll plough on.
Consider what school subjects our political leaders still believe to be most important: literacy, numeracy, science and IT. The curriculum, then, is heavily weighed towards left brain thinking.
Why are maths, science and IT are still valued more than art, music or drama? Why does reading receive more emphasis than oracy?
Subjects that cannot be easily gauged, or measured, are valued less. You can measure reading age, spelling age, maths age. You can test a child’s knowledge of science. You can buy computer programmes that will test the lot.
But no computer can test a child’s capacity to draw, or to express an emotion in speech. And by definition, there can’t be the tools for measuring creativity: if you are highly creative, you will have brilliant ideas long before some bureaucrat comes up with a way of testing what they are.
And yet when we look at what makes an organisation great, it isn’t its targets, or its data, it’s the people in it: people who show initiative and creativity; people who are good with other people, who watch out for the smallest signs of distress and respond to it; people who recognise and nurture talent.
What elevates something to excellence is something beyond measure.
McGilchrist’s book is a six hundred page scream. The data munchers, the Daleks, are taking over. They are taking over because the test obsessed school curriculum exaggerates the abilities of systematizers over those of their more intuitive, emotional, people-friendly peers. The examination system rewards closed, rational thought, students who can play the game.
More than ever, then, artists and writers need to make strong, well-argued cases for the elevation of their disciplines in schools and in the world outside. We must not pander to the data-fiddlers and boast that whatever it is we do can improve a child’s scores. Ironically, and sadly, we, like McGilchrist, have to use the techniques of the left brainers (rational argument) to champion the intuitive, poetic mind. (I had thought of tying a fish to my head and standing on one leg in Parliament Square, but didn’t think that would put these ideas across so well).
We need only look at children’s faces when we tell a story, or perform a play, to know that what we provide is right. We do not need any other test. Quality cannot be quantified.
Which is why literature is so vital. Literature is all the right-brained thinking child has left. If her art and music lessons are squashed into the scrag end of an afternoon, often taught by teachers who are not particularly fully absorbed by these subjects, the result is a desert for the empathetic, intuitive child. The left brainers tramp merrily away with all the booty.