Why does cultural education matter?

“Arts Council chief accuses Gove of abandoning cultural education.”

This headline in the Guardian caught my eye earlier this week. You can read the full article about Dame Liz Forgan’s farewell to the Arts Council as Sir Peter Bazalgette prepares to take over as the new Chair at http://bit.ly/S7P3uB.

Interestingly, Melvyn Bragg is also exploring the ‘The Value of Culture’ in a current BBC Radio 4 series examining the idea of culture and its evolution over the last 150 years. Podcasts are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/tvoc

Culture is one of the WEA’s four main educational themes and we have been mentioned in the Radio 4 programmes. Our other three educational themes are Employability, Health and Wellbeing and Community Engagement. We have distinctive approaches to each of these themes and work collaboratively to develop our curriculum. All the collectively developed text below explains why we think that cultural education is important in the WEA.

What do you think?

The WEA’s ‘Culture’ Theme

“WEA cultural education broadens horizons through understanding cultures, identities and environments embodying our commitment to social purpose”

Students on the WEA's 'Digability' community archaeology project

Students on the WEA’s ‘Digability’ community archaeology project

We believe that exploring culture helps people to understand the human experience, learning from the past, understanding the present and giving us resources to imagine and shape the future.

‘Culture’ is a very broad term and includes philosophy, music, literature, history, arts, religion, archaeology, science, economics, politics, media – and other subjects from cultures across the world. Studying these subjects enriches our lives and helps us to think creatively and critically as well as providing a basis for thinking about moral and ethical questions.

"Create a Radio Play" - a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

“Create a Radio Play” – a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

The notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ is of great value and learning about culture enriches lives regardless of any other benefits that result from such learning.

A journey through local history on the 'Pride of Tyne' ferry last year

A journey through local history on the ‘Pride of Tyne’ ferry last year

We know that learning about culture can cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently. Through such learning, students develop the skills, understanding and resilience to deal with change.

The insights we gain from history, drama, fiction, poetry, paintings and music can be transferred into other aspects of our lives. Learning about other cultures, achievements and experiences in different places and ages help us to understand the world.

Studying other people’s creativity challenges our students to develop their own creative thinking skills, which can prove useful for solving problems that they might encounter in the future. Creativity also promotes well-being.

Through ‘culture’, students can learn from each other and imagine the ways that other people live, or have lived, their lives. This encourages a greater ability for people to understand and learn from others’ experiences as well as about themselves.

Lee Hall based his 'Pitman Painters' hit play on a WEA art coursein the 1930s

Lee Hall based his ‘Pitman Painters’ hit play on a WEA art course in the 1930s

Our tutors are enthusiastic experts in their subject areas, who continue to learn and share high levels of academic expertise. Many are practising artists, writers, musicians and / or academic specialists in their subject areas. They nurture students’ creative instincts and curiosity.

It is important that understanding culture does not become exclusive or seen as ‘belonging’ to any dominant group or class so, as with other aspects of our activities, we work at neighbourhood levels creating accessible and affordable learning opportunities for people who might otherwise be marginalised.

We work in many partnerships for example with galleries, museums, theatres and archives. Our educational activities are part of the cultural fabric of England and Scotland and maximise wider cultural opportunities and access for WEA students and strengthen the voice of those who value cultural education.

Learning about Culture with the WEA can take many forms including study circles, events, seminars and visits as well as courses.

Democracy and voice

We sang at the WEA’s Yorkshire & Humber Region AGM in Leeds today. You don’t get that kind of exuberance in most shareholders’ meetings.

The (fully booked) get-together before the business part of the meeting focused on ‘Democracy, Active Citizenship and the Role of Voice’.  Prof. Stephen Coleman set the scene very engagingly in his William Alderson Memorial Trust Lecture on this theme.

Prof. Stephen Coleman

Prof. Coleman got our attention straight away, saying that, “Voice is the foundation technology of democracy but not all voices are equal.” In a rousing performance, he talked of the need for all sorts of voices that are, “confident, unbound and efficacious”. Quoting from John Milton and Edmund Burke, he went on to describe, “an entire history of disrespect built on prejudice”, with a “spurious connection” between people’s style of pronunciation and their authority to speak.  He warned that we shouldn’t mistake sullen and silent anger in society for civic contentment. Identifying 6 civic capabilities, he showed excerpts from a website at www.youthamplified.com, which he urged people to explore.

Various examples of  ‘WEA Experiences’ followed his lecture. These were impressive in showing how students and volunteers had gained confidence and found voices with the WEA.

Students from an Asian Women’s Sewing Group showed their skills in a stunning fashion show. The soundtrack encouraged some impromptu Gangnam Style moves from several people as well as nods of admiration and enthusiastic applause. The women from Crosland Moor also won the Learning Group of the Year award and were full of praise for Judith Boardman, their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Tutor.

Award winners’ acceptance speech

In a change of pace and tone, we watched a short film that WEA students with experience of homelessness had made. They described some changes that they would make to Doncaster if they had a million pounds to spend. The film was an excellent practical illustration of people speaking about what’s important to them in their community.

Mark Goodwin and the Bumble Bee Barbarians then had us spellbound as they talked about the triumphs and impact of mixed ability rugby and the creative training that the WEA is building around the sport. Students with a learning difficulty or disability gave a presentation that was both moving and funny. They challenged several stereotypes and managed to make some serious messages entertaining.

They showed how they are tackling inequality, in a very literal way, and finding their voices.

Mark Goodwin (R) & some Bumble Bee Barbarians

Rob Hindle, Nicola Thorpe and Victoria Beauchamp’s presentation about Digability, a WEA Community Archaeology Project, was another example of inclusion that builds on people’s interests. They showed clips from a film about the project. This is available at http://youtu.be/rccUF2VuhA0. They emphasised how important it is for organisations to work together and the key role of volunteers like Beth Deakin.

Beth Deakin, Volunteer of the Year

Lindy Gresswell, Yorkshire and Humber Region’s Chair, presented regional awards to even more applause.

As well as the people mentioned already, Lindy presented certificates to:

  • Julie Harrison – Nominated for WEA Student of the Year
  • Jill Iles – Nominated for Special recognition award: Education
  • Janet Driver – Nominated for Special recognition award: Administration and support services
  • Ron Moreton – Nominated for Special recognition: Long Service Award
  • Open Door Hate and Mate Crime Group – Nominated for Most Innovative Partnership Activity

Energy levels were kept high by the WEA’s ‘Easingwold Sings’ Choir. Some of us thought we might be sitting back to be entertained – which we were – but taking part is in the WEA’s DNA so we had a quick singing lesson and found our voices quite harmoniously.

‘Easingwold Sings’ Choir

The high spirits and sense of communal activity were an excellent curtain raiser for the business part of the meeting.