Arts 21 – Relevant, Engaged, Contributing

Hosted by Radio NZ’s Bryan Crump, Arts21 at Te Papa considered the contributions that the arts make to our society and economy in the 21st century. It contained a keynote by Vice Chancellor Hon Steve Maharey, and a panel discussion with Professor Paul Spoonley (Pro Vice-Chancellor, Massey University College of Humanities and Social Sciences), Nicola Legat (founding publisher, Massey University Press), John Milford (Chief Executive, Wellington Chamber of Commerce) and Hannah August (writer, reviewer and commentator). The thoughts and reflections below are ideas that I gathered throughout the event – particularly from the excellent keynote.

  • We live in a globalised knowledge economy world where the arts have found it tough. STEM subjects receive natural bias and BAs are the butt of endless jokes. So the Arts have to explain itself. Explain it’s position in society. It’s reason for being. The arts are very good at doing this to the already converted, but wider conversation is necessary to re-frame education values.
  • “Knowledge earned through the Arts can set you free” – Steve Maharey. In our post truth era in politics (it’s wider than just politics) knowledge, attitude, competencies and skills from the arts – make us more likely to inquire and not just accept without thinking. Education in the arts essential to navigating a post truth world that is increasingly globalized. There is serious danger of moving towards a tribal world that does’t engage collectively (see the warning sounded in the recent film: Arrival). It is important to recognise the humanity in those of who you disagree with.
  • One of the key qualities that you get from an arts education is the ability to listen and to hear. This idea from Steve Maharey was expanded to thinking about learning to operate in environments with diverse views. There is a strong parallel here to the opinion economy that I’ve written previously about. Curiosity, communication, connections, appreciation of diverse views are other core qualities of an arts education. It prepares students to practice humility, tolerance and self criticism. Also to take on the challenge of how to take in thoughts of people that you disagree with and give their views respect.

If the world was a car, the Arts are the steering wheel – Callum Marra

The panel discussion followed with presenting wide ranging ideas. Some that stuck included:

  • Importance of exercising the responsibility of being citizens and not dismissing alternative views. A failure of engaging with questions and understanding that which we agree with and that which we disagree with is reflected by the issues faced in the USA and Britain. Something to note is the lack of wide media in NZ. There are very few places to go to gather diverse views.
  • We denigrate young people to easily. On the whole they are engaged, they are just communicating differently and navigating a very complex world. It is too easy to say they are apathetic, but the truth is far more complex.
  •  Steve Maharey spoke about what education needs to do: hang on to a curriculum that teaches students everything. Don’t succumb to the narrow vision of the curriculum that National Standards promotes and instead aspire for a broad range of knowledge. Languages being cut and dropped from the curriculum represents this narrowing and it’s something we have to fight against.
  • There is a balance between the specific skills for a job and the wider knowledge and life-skills required for success in 5 different industries and 17 different jobs (the new average apparently!).
  • Government had a lead a shift in discourse that sees value as economic value. We need to widen the discourse of value. Economic input doesn’t have to be economic output.

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