Saturday, 16 October 2010

Uncomfortably Numb

Last week at my place at work, I received a rather unwelcome wake-up to the plight of some of my new intake of students.

We are six weeks into the teaching term and the students are beginning to settle in. Practical classes are moving on from the ice-breaker 'getting to know you' exercises into more demanding and challenging areas. The dance classes are stretching the students (pun intended) and testing their stamina and strength. The theory classes are encouraging the young people to think more broadly about their chosen subject and the world around them. The acting classes are asking them to look at themselves critically and to engage with one another on an emotional level. I'm not talking the Strasberg Method here, just to give a little of themselves and connect with their peers on a human level; to listen to one another, to drop prejudice and assumption, and to begin to empathise with someone else. As adolescents they are naturally self-centred, egotistical and judgemental. It is part of our responsibility as adults to help them navigate their way through that minefield of social interaction.

One of the exercises we use to get the students to engage with one another is to put them in pairs and ask them to tell one another a brief story about their life, likes, dislikes or interests. The speaker can choose at what level to do this and how much they want to give away. The listener just listens only asking questions if clarification is required. They must pay attention to the facts of the story, the kind of language used and to observe the physicality and facial expression of the storyteller. In this way they not only develop active listening skills but also attention to detail. The roles are then reversed and the listener tells their story whilst the first person listens.

The next stage of the exercise requires each person to re-tell their partner's story as accurately as possible - not only in terms of facts but also tone of voice, expression and physicality. This is not an act of impersonation but rather a re-creation of the emotional content in the teller. The re-telling can be done to the whole group, small groups or just another pair depending on the confidence and comfort levels in the group. It was at this stage that the first signs of a deeper problem emerged.

We asked the pairs to focus on something positive as the subject for their stories - this tends to keep the session lighter and less scary for the least confident members of the class. A long, uncomfortable period of silence followed before the first stories began to be shared. But it was clear that the young people were finding the task difficult. On speaking with several of the pairs it became apparent that these bright, creative 16 and 17 year olds were having difficulty finding anything positive to talk about. They were literally unable to identify any aspect of their life as positive apart from coming to College.

We were gobsmacked. Gentle prompting and guidance on possible subjects (birthdays, holidays, family, nature, music) still only inspired a few students to speak about something positive. The most common thing we heard was, "There is nothing positive, my life is sh*t!" Now we all know that teenagers can be nihilistic and gloom-laden at the best of times, but this was coming from so many of them that it seemed to signify something more serious than just the usual adolescent 'no-one understands me' navel-gazing. After hearing the same kind of comments coming from all corners of the room we pulled the entire class together to discuss what had emerged.

To their credit, the youngsters all engaged with the discussion and there was a sense of relief in the room that someone had opened the conversation and that they could all share their feelings and frustrations. This was still an awkward experience and, at times, was emotional. It wasn't a woolly, liberal, touchy-feely therapy session; it was difficult and uncomfortable but very valuable. We all learned about the difficulties some class members face, heard about barriers to learning and dampened expectations. Some of the stories were literally heartbreaking. But the positive outcome of all of this was that so many of the young people had already grown in confidence at College, so many of them viewed coming to study as a was of transcending their current situations.

What is modern life doing to young people? Why are we not investing the time, care and, yes, money in giving them the best start in life? It might sound trite but these people are literally our future. Instead of demonising them, bombarding them with imagery of how they should look, what they should own and forcing them to grow into materialistic consumers, we should be nurturing their imaginations, reigniting that wonderful curiosity that all childrren are born with. When a 16 year old with their whole life in front of them, the energy to enjoy it, and the potential to do anything instead feels numb, needs to cut themselves just to feel anything or has to drink themselves into oblivion just to 'have a good time', then we have failed in our responsibility to that child.

What started out as an exercise in sharing experiences and observing others became a session on facing up to how we feel about ourselves, about how we are perceived by others (and how we perceive the way others perceive us) and a realisation that we all have a responsibility to be the best that we can be and to allow others to be the same.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

I Value the Arts

"A Cynic is a person who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde

There has been much made in the British press recently of the Government's plans to slash public spending across all areas. Education, science, the NHS, Public Services are all facing budget cuts of up to 40%. The Arts are no exception; in fact, in many people's eyes, they are the first place the axe should fall. 

One of the (many) criticisms levelled at The Arts is that they cost a lot of money - money that could be better spent elsewhere on social services or the road infrastructure or, I don't know...defence. Another criticism is that there are no concrete 'outcomes' to prove that the artform is giving good value for money. 'Outcomes' are the bane of anyone's life who has to write funding bids. It is nigh on impossible to accurately predict the number of people who will 'engage' with a painting, or listen to a piece of music, or even attend a play. The only outcome that should matter is that the piece of art should provoke some kind of response (ideally a positive one) in the people who come into contact with it. 

The people who hold the purse strings obviously have a problem with this concept - that Art has a value of and in itself, that defies quantification and does not sit comfortably in any tickbox. They want proof that their small but valued contribution has been spent wisely. They want to be able to account for their investment; to ensure value for money.
What they cannot understand, and therefore cannot account for, is that The Arts have a long-term, organic, and creative value to society. An auction house may put a price on a Van Gogh but what value can you put on the impact that painting has had on countless people, many of whom may have gone on to create artworks of their own?

There are some instances where a 'value' in the monetary sense can be given. There is a wonderful and very hard-working organisation called Dance Utd. that regularly works with young people who are either in danger of offending or have already been through the Youth Justice system. Dance Utd. takes these youngsters and via a 12 week dance training course instills in them increased levels of self-confidence, co-operation, problem-solving and fitness. This is as well as increasing their awareness of healthy eating, exercise and self-discipline. Some might think that a dance class is a 'soft option' and that it is hardly an effective deterrent against re-offending, but this is not the case. Many of the young people who have been involved with Dance Utd. say that it is the hardest they have ever worked at anything.  The difference in the young people who stay the course is marked. Their confidence is improved as is their ability to express themselves. To see the graduation performances after the 12 weeks is an inspiration and is often an emotional event for the parents of these 'bad lads and naughty girls'. Several young people from each cohort progress onto further education or training, and a number have been offered places at some of the most prestigious dance schools in the country. 
The cost of taking a young person through the Criminal Justice System is immense (not only in hard cash terms but in the workload and time spent) and custodial sentences rarely work in stopping the cycle of offending. If even one of the young people involved in Dance Utd. no longer offends, no longer needs a case-worker, will no longer re-offend and face prison, then the cost of funding Dance Utd's work has been saved. There are many examples of such projects across all art-forms, each one giving something back to society or allowing people to find some belief in themselves. I would suggest that each of these is worth its funding. 

I had a conversation recently with someone about the Save-the-Arts and Value-the-Arts campaigns currently galvanising support to oppose spending cuts. They said that they valued the arts but didn't think that public money should be spent on them. They also said that they preferred the Value-the-Arts approach as 'Save-the-Arts' implies that we actually have to DO something. Herein lies a problem; there is a perception amongst some people that The Arts are something that other people do and therefore are not their responsibility. They happily watch hours of television, visit the cinema, listen to the radio, read a book, buy a CD and not see the connection. 

There has to be a sensible approach to arts funding, we can't expect bucketloads of cash to be handed out to anyone with a paintbrush or a guitar. But we can seek to redress the inequalities. We can reaffirm ourselves as a civilised nation that sees The Arts as an important, even vital, part of life. We can be less cynical and stop asking what things cost but how much are they worth.