Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A No-Brainer

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.


Nicola Morgan said...

*applauds loudly* (Though I also find the left/right brain arguments and how they are abused and simplified excruciating and even dangerous. But, as you say, as an analogy only it's a useful one.)

Abi Burlingham said...

I found this post fascinating Andrew. I am definitely a right-brainer, although, as with many people, the lines blur in some areas. At school I was lucky enough to have a wonderful English teacher and a passionate Art teacher - thank goodness, as these subjects were my life-line... no surprise that I'm now an English teacher and a writer! I only wish schools encouraged creativity a little more and placed the same value on it that we do.

Stroppy Author said...

'Why are maths, science and IT are still valued more than art, music or drama?'
Because for an economy/society to work it needs primarily to produce things which are the fruit of technological endeavour - food and medicine being the principals. No amount of wall painting and songs around the fireside could the save the tribe that didn't have a decent line in flint tools.

Literacy wins out over oral skills because it has until recently been very much easier to communicate with large numbers of people by writing rather than speaking. And as the recipient of knowledge, written sources are much easier to use - easy to recap, look up odd items, and so on.

Science, IT, maths, literacy are all tool subjects; they can be turned to any ends. Art and music are outcome subjects. You can use technology to make music, but you can't use music to make anything else (except cultured human beings :-) While the arts are a vital part of a cultured society, they must always be the smaller economic portion or the society will not be viable (given the 21st century as starting point).

In an ideal world, we would have well-rounded citizens with a good grounding in the OTHER thinking tools of philosophy, history, foreign languages and linguistics. And subjects such as art and music should not be ground down - but there are reasons for the supremacy of the 'left-brain' subjects other than the arrogance of 'left brainers'.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Lots of valuable insights and ideas about the writing life and creativity, Andrew. Much of which I agree with - at least in part! A fascinating post

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Andrew! (we need your name up at the start... or is this left-brainish!)And a brilliant response from our 'stroppy author'. Just off to grab some stones. No more dancing and clapping around the fire until I've produced a new line in flints!

Maple said...

Did you mean to write "panda" instead of "pander" Andrew or was that your right-brain kicking in?

Sue said...

Our society is driven by the assumption that measurability implies importance or value - but it is always worth looking behind those assumptions. Are you actually measuring what you purport to be measuring? Does an IQ test measure "intelligence" or simply the ability the do "intelligence tests" which are (mostly) based on a middle-class 20th century Western male's judgement of what constitutes intelligence?

And, furthermore, just because something cannot be easily measured does not mean that it is less valuable or significant .

Andrew Strong said...

Dear Stroppy, I absolutely do not agree that art and music are simply outcome subjects; art and music are commodified, and most people, therefore, consider art and music as products. But it is process that is paramount in creative activity, and therefore the arts are as much a tool of thinking as maths or science. In mainstream education maths and science teaching are directed towards the acquisition of knowledge (although there is a laughable pretence there should be a large element of investigation.) But the arts still maintain much more of an emphasis on process. What is lost when the role of the arts is diminished is a respect for open-ended enquiry, of creative free-wheeling. If technology were simply a step by step process that inevitably leads to innovation, then humanity needs never worry. But a narrowing of school subjects to the extent that one form of thinking dominates completely overlooks the obvious - that science, technology and flint making need people who can think creatively, and a curriculum that is limited by what is measurable is crushing the original thinkers and undermining what they can offer. And to be facetious, it’s over twenty years since the introduction of the National Curriculum. The economy isn’t exactly booming, is it?

And thank you Maple for pointing to my ‘panda’. Silly me.