A letter to Nicky Morgan

Fetch the green ink, Smithers.

Here’s what our education secretary said recently at a conference to promote science and technology learning. Here’s my reply.

Dear Ms Morgan –

I left school in 1986. I did two humanities degrees. Jobs, as you may recall, were not thick on the ground. I did a business course first, not because I wanted to but because, oddly enough, I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it would give me a solid, useful career in which I could contribute to the national economy and make my father happy.

Then I came to my senses. I ran away from the business course, which made me want to kill myself and a number of other people, and did two humanities degrees. I spent eighteen happy, poorly-paid years in archaeology. My specialist field was – as it happens – the archaeology of industry, and particularly of mining, which was so vital a part of my own Northern landscape and culture. I come from Sheffield. I need no lesson from a Tory Minister to tell me how important manufacturing, industry and technology are, nor what happened to ours in the Thatcher years.

Later, I went into poetry and arts administration, running National Poetry Day and building projects both large and small across the UK. I’ve been pretty successful, in the terms by which you might define success. My father, as it turned out, wanted me to be happy more than he wanted me to be rich.

My career was ‘limited to the arts’ as a science graduate might have found her career choices ‘limited to science’. That, I expect, is why we each chose to train in the field we wanted to work in. You say dismissively that “if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose.” For some people, that will be true; as it will certainly be true for some people who go into engineering or industrial design. My experience, though, is that I chose the appropriate qualification for my chosen career. No doubt James Dyson did too. The fact that there is more money in vacuum cleaner design than poetry is not his fault.

Creative work is not, as you seem to think, a kind of work which can be done by anyone with rice paper and blunt scissors, and for which a science degree might be equally useful. My choice did not ‘hold me back for life’. It made my life possible, meaningful, and one in which I could offer service to other people. Admittedly, my work does not generate for the UK the same kind of revenue that my stepfather brings in by inventing and building machinery for export. I employ no-one; my contributions to the national economy have been small. My contributions to the national debt, likewise.

I don’t pretend, of course, that an economy can be built on ballet and radio drama. But let’s not pretend that a nation, a culture, a whole and healthy Britain can be built on scientific instruments and coding. A government that values only commercial success and those who generate jobs, will usually fail those who provide the labour. The Tory governments which so valued entrepreneurship and private wealth creation were those which dismantled the unions of the north and midlands – and then the workforces they had protected. The people who expressed our indignation and spoke of the culture we had left – Barry Hines with Kes, Willy Russell with Educating Rita, Tony Harrison with V, Gillian Alnutt and Linda France and others – were artists, musicians, poets.

What kind of government values only material wealth? The kind of government, it seems, that appoints as Minister of Education a woman who curries favour with an audience of scientists at the expense of other sectors. It was a glimpse of the lip-service paid to creativity, and the glistening robot underneath.

Art, you imply, requires no specific training. Poetry, painting, music – these are the things that we do in our spare time. They aren’t a proper career, and they don’t fulfil our civic obligation to make money. Money, after all, is what you want us to make. We are not to ask who you want us to make it for. Those in the creative sector have heard this all our lives. We refute it.

It’s true that creative types don’t make money, as a rule. I have never in my life made more than £24k and that was an exceptionally good year. I don’t decry this as unfair, because I chose it. Nor do I offer you statistics on the size of the creative industries, the amount of money they bring to the economy, etc etc. That would be to accept your premise on its own terms – that value must be measured in revenue, and if it can’t be measured it isn’t valuable.  That we work to make money, and for nothing else. I do not accept that. We need to make a living, but beyond that we need to live.

Manufacturing and industry are vital to the wealth of the nation but not, of course, to all the nation equally. They are of most value to the demographic at the very top. Find me the richest man [sic] in the world, and tell me how he made his money. I am quite sure he made it through mineral extraction, through export, through technological innovation and well-designed goods. I begrudge him not a jot of that, if that’s the choice he made.

Now take away from his life music, reading, comedy, film. How rich is he now?

My working life has been creative, revelatory, communal; it has daily taught me new things about human nature. It has allowed me to be sincerely happy in my work. I am very fortunate. Many technologists and manufacturers would say the same, and good luck to them. Their work too can be uplifting, visionary, expanding our imaginations as well as our physical capabilities. What they create benefits the nation, creates jobs and security for many.

Art, on the other hand, is a universal wealth which no-one can take from us. A lot of people carry a poem with them, on paper or in their heads. No-one carries a circuit board*.

Ms Morgan, when your scientists come home from another day at the coalface (as it were) of machinery or medicine, what do they do? What do you do? You turn on the television. That is art. You turn on the radio. That is art. You go to a gallery, a concert, you listen to music – that is art. You read the latest Booker winner. That is art. The iPod was built by science and technology – so that we can consume music, writing, art.

Science and art are not mutually exclusive. Both are vital to a safe, fulfilled and interesting life. Science and technology are what we live by, on the whole. But what we live for? That’s art.

[*Thank you to the many literal minded folk who have pointed out, as if it negated my point, that a mobile phone has a circuit board in it. I think it’s clear from the context that I mean ‘for emotional value’.]

Published by Jo Bell

Poet, boater, archaeologist. Former director of the UK's National Poetry Day. One half of @OnThisDayShe. Erstwhile UK Canal Laureate, Cheshire Laureate. Host of The Poetic Licence on YouTube and Patreon (see links).

71 thoughts on “A letter to Nicky Morgan

  1. Morgan’s opinions left me spitting inarticulately. I usually think you’re lucky if there are only two sides to an issue but in this case there are and one is right, one is wrong. I might rather someone right was in Morgan’s post but I’m glad we’ve got you on our side, Jo. Well done on the piece, I wish I’d written it.

  2. It’s a great letter. When a Government has little imagination and everything is measured in terms of money, there’s no surprise that arts are considered second rate when compared to science and that the bankers are lauded above everyone else.

  3. If only the absolute emphasis (both Bell’s and Morgan’s) had been this: Science and art are not mutually exclusive. Both are vital to a safe, fulfilled and interesting life.

  4. Beautifully put, Jo. I’m an engineering graduate who used that ‘real’ qualification to go and work for a bank. After 20 years I bailed out to do a proper job: bringing the richness of language (skills honed in a second, arty-farty degree) to the dour world of business communication. I employ people (writers) and make businesses better, businesses often run by maths and engineering types who could have done with paying more attention in English classes. Perhaps, instead of forcing youngsters down one route or the other, we should allow them to develop both sides of their brains at the same time.

  5. Perfectly put, Jo. The Minister should also read her own figures from 6 months ago.
    Creative industries contribute a staggering £71.4 billion, making it the fastest growing sector in the economy – never mind the huge impact a culture of innovation has upon private and public enterprise throughout society.

  6. So very well said – I can’t believe that someone who supposedly represents our country’s Government can be so blinkered and narrow minded about the Arts! If we all did the same thing then wouldn’t we be a very boring, monotone and grey lot? I wonder what it is which makes people like this decide that the only thing which is of any importance is money and earning tons of it…? How little of life itself she must be experiencing to only have this issue at heart – I wouldn’t like to be sitting around her table at meal time – because after all – cooking is also an Art and therefore there would be any food on the table as it wouldn’t have any place in her grey world.
    As for making your goal in life simply to be a big money earning – at whatever risk to life, experience, enjoyment, health and sociability, I’d sooner leave an epitaph which read something like – Was a Creative and an Artist, Experienced wondrous things, lived life to the full, died penniless rather than Made tons of money spouting off absurdities about how we should and shouldn’t be educated. I can guess where this is leading – she wants to make big cutbacks in schools and think the Art department is the least important and therefore the first to go. How ridiculous is that? She needs to look at the effect that Creative Partnerships had on schools and their learning levels. Especially on Science. It was the Artists and Creative Practitioners which went into schools and helped put the fun back into learning about all the STEM subjects. I think this lady needs to do some decent research before putting such a disastrous case forward, damning all and sundry who dare to stand up before her and be counted as ARTISTS!

  7. So well argued and written. We all share what the ‘two cultures’ bring us, we all benefit from both.

  8. I totally agree with your sentiments on the importance of the arts, but please don’t make art and science seperate entities. With arts, we practice and (try to) improve ouir techniques, just as in science we try to improve our technology. If we have a new idea, whether musical. artistic, literary, electrical, mechanical, we do our best to perfect it; and the joy of seeing it come to fruition as a device, a piece of software, a piece of music, a poem – whatever – is something we all know. All these things are part of a search after truth. The problem in this world is politics – the science of lying and greed.

  9. Both science and arts are essential to human development as CP Snow acknowledged 60 years ago. Its a sterile debate to argue which is “more “important. But as a graduate of English Literature and Language, I know of course that my English degree enabled me to do anything: be a senior officer in the military; run a £16 million turnover business with 300 staff; guide a small team creating innovative software to help students with obstacles to their learning; to guide and shape important charities that support society; and now to tutor children, and engender in them knowledge and love of the power and beauty of language!

  10. I work as an Art Director and Designer in the advertising industry, a job I love, a job that puts me in the top 30% of earners in the UK, an industry which could allow me to earn a lot more. But most importantly in this argument, a career in which I employ the fundamentals of my 5 year art education every single day. I work with some of the most inspirational and talented people I will ever meet. Whether they be ad men, web developers, marketing experts or entrepreneurs. The one thing they have in common is their ability to think creatively, to see different perspectives, to see something that nobody else will see, something that makes them very successful, both professionally and financially. I firmly believe that every successful business is a creative business and it is this that that creates jobs and develops wealth. The idea that creative industries are somehow a second choice with no real job or economic prospect is quite simply ignorant. The UK are leaders, a world destination in the creative industries, we should ensure we are supplying the talent of the future and inspire or kids to think for themselves. If however they want to be a scientist or engineer then I fully support them, every child should be able to pursue their talents and interests without prejudice from society or government.

    Rant over!

  11. Fantastic response. This trend towards educational eugenics has been going on for years and is deeply disturbing. When “education” seeks to bend the biases and skills of individuals in order to meet the demands of a consumer-led society it ceases to be education in the true sense of the word. Educare means to draw out, not to stuff in.

  12. So, in the full article she simply speaks at greater length about the importance of STEM subjects.
    That in no way detracts from the fact that she states that studies in arts or humanities will not open any doors and that you’ll be stiffing yourself if you go that route.

    1. I’m not sure she says, “arts and humanities will not open any doors,” I certainly couldn’t find that in the transcript. I have to say, having seen the original article I was upset, like a lot of people here appear to be, but having read her speech I’m not sure it was all that controversial. I’m not left more upset by how politicized all our reporting is 😦

      1. What Nicky Morgan said is that maths and science should be regarded as defaults. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life (at 15 or 16), study science and maths and this will give you an entrance to any career (including her own speciality, law). There is nothing new in what she is saying (and perhaps the reporting has been unfair in this respect); she is just echoing popular prejudice against art and music as careers, rather than hobbies. People are always having to stand up for the creative arts, pointing out their value, not just in terms of making people feel better, but also as contributors to our economy. Of course children with an aptitude for science should be encouraged to follow this path but the idea that children who don’t know what they want to do should embrace science by default, will just result in poor exam grades. I speak from experience!

      2. Up to GCSE they have to do science and maths anyway!
        It’s not optional. And speaking from experience as a science teaching assistant, there are a lot of students ho loath it as a science no no matter how much time you try to explain its relevance in life cannot see any point in doing it as “I am never going to need to know all this when I leave school and go out to work”. So you can imagine that being forced into doing it as a default will cause huge problems with behaviour etc

  13. Interesting that the statistic which Nicky Morgan quotes for the pay differential between maths qualified and non maths qualified people – 10%, is the same as the pay differential between men and women – 10%. You have to be careful with statistics!

  14. Well put Jo. I find this woman insulting . I chose to be a string teacher because I loved music .. it is my skill and I have a way with youngsters , I am not rich but not poor. I have a wonderful life. Job satisfaction in helping young people to appreciate good music. Life is not all about the money. I want her to spend a month in a comnplet vaccum .. null and void of music , art , drama , poetry , books , needlework , soft decorations .. Opera .. Plays .. hmm the list is endless.. Just give her one month without any stimulation and she would go mad.

  15. Very true. When will this government realise that we are all indervidual, all different and that is exactly what makes a culture and a society. We don’t all want to be the same and we should be encouraging our children to follow their dreams, even the unconventional ones!!! I’m sick of these out of touch people messing with the education of our children 😦

  16. Brilliant. Today the government released a press release stating that the creative industries bring in £8m an hour in the UK. Clearly not enough for some people. Did you know she’s married to an architect btw?!

  17. Brilliant. “A lot of people carry a poem with them, on paper or in their heads. No-one carries a circuit board.” Amazing how some people take the arts for granted. They’d be sorely missed if they disappeared.

  18. Well said, but I disagree that creative types don’t make money. The Creative industries are one of the biggest money makers in this country, so it is an ill informed minister who ignores this. You only have to visit any major city in Britain to see how art, design and culture are a major part of commerce and tourism, and are central in creating a vibrant and exciting environment, which people want to be part of. Look at the Poppies at the Tower. It wasn’t a science project bringing all those people to London. Every film we see, every book we read, the music we listen to, the attractions we visit, pretty much every product we see in the stores has involved input from ‘a creative type’.
    Let’s have more of a balanced view Minister. We need all sorts of people, specialising in all sort of areas to create a well rounded balanced society.

  19. Excellent, but don’t forget tit’s not just a question of science or art: the value of service: to the community near and wider, is imeasurable.

    So far as poetry is concerned, I don’t write it for fame or fortune. I write because I must!

  20. Well said.

    Also, Morgan is wrong. How many actual jobs are there for actual scientists?

    People of my generation who did science and tried to become scientists had to flog their way through PhDs and postdocs on a pittance, then if they were really lucky they might have got a job on a slightly larger pittance, getting told what to do by some MBAed-up Arts graduate.

    The ones who are raking it in now all did English, Law, Politics etc.

    1. I agree with Douglas. Having a science degree or degrees does NOT guarantee a job or even a well-paying job. Scientist jobs have been so sparse in the last 5 years!

      Personally having had a broad spectrum of education up till age 18 at high school, including science, geography (!) , maths and english, has an enabled me to understand the culture I live in, follow scientific discoveries with interest, and even appreciate art and cinema. My life is happier, but penniless (as a former scientist, turned artist).

  21. I don’t usually have much time for politicians of any stripe, but your response to Nicky Morgan’s speech is just wrongheaded. She doesn’t says arts education isn’t worthwhile. She didn’t suggest that even if it art is your passion then you should just knock it on the head and study chemistry instead. Nowhere did she deny the value of the creative economy, which everyone knows is massively important.

    Her sin is apparently that she points out that if you don’t really know what it is you want to do in life, then you are probably going to be financially better off studying science-y subjects than just defaulting to the arts. That’s just something probably based on observation from census returns, and frankly it sounds perfectly plausible.

    You say that your choice did not ‘hold you back for life’. Well, well done you, but a sample of one is hardly convicing. I’ll bet there are thousands of people who never manage to make even a basic living from their choices because they pursued a course that failed to deliver for them.

    You also seem to suggest that art DOES need specific training, and that people who don’t study it formally are “cutters and stickers”. How insulting is that! Studying maths or science doesn’t stop you pursuing acting, music, painting or poetry as a career if that’s what you want – if anything it helps you.

    I see that most of the responses here support you, but I’m afraid all I read is a massive chip on your shoulder, and a failure to actually read the transcript properly.

    1. Thanks for this – I was honestly wondering when someone would express an opinion on the other side. First, I’d like to raise this above the personal accusation that I have a chip on my shoulder. That is what we say when people disagree with us, in order to belittle their argument and reduce it to emotive nonsense. I have read the transcript – my position comes not from ignorance, but from sincere and intelligent disagreement, as yours does.

      Yes, it’s a sample of one. I am not here to garner statistics, but to refute a position which seems to me unfair and ill-founded. Neither of us (I suspect) wants a long argument in ‘the bottom half of the internet’, so I shall just clarify something and bugger off. Your opinion is as strong as mine, and we don’t expect to budge one another.

      I must correct one statement – “You also seem to suggest that art DOES need specific training, and that people who don’t study it formally are “cutters and stickers”. How insulting is that! Studying maths or science doesn’t stop you pursuing acting, music, painting or poetry as a career if that’s what you want – if anything it helps you.”

      You have genuinely misread that paragraph, I think. On the contrary, I was saying the opposite; I was saying that Nicky Morgan insults us with that suggestion. Arts requires far more than cutting and sticking, so an arts degree is essential for *some* arts work. Not all. Where it is, however, a science degree will not do. Your suggestion that ‘maths or science doesn’t stop you pursuing acting….’ etc is the exact assertion Ms Morgan has made and which is so exasperating. It assumes that a science degree is as good as any other for a career in the arts, becaue you can still pursue acting etc. In fact, the work I do in poetry needed a deep and (in my case) formal course of education, followed by many years of on-the-job experience. I knew what I wanted to do – and studied humanities as a result.

      I agree with you this far – yes, if you don’t know what you want to do, and are not drawn one way or the other, then no doubt science and maths offer more lucrative possibilities, and an equal chance of fulfilment. My argument, however, is that arts are not simply a subject for those who don’t know what they want. Those who know that they want a career in the arts, would be as foolish in doing a science degree, as the dedicated scientist would be in studying literature. The wonderful people who just put Philae on the comet, are career scientists. They have taken their own aspirations and dreams seriously, and studied and worked to realise them. Artists do the same. They can’t do a physics degree and then just pick up playing the violin in their spare time.

      That is the burden of my argument, and now I shall leave us to sit in separate corners of the Internet fuming.

      Incidentally, I don’t think that you have a chip on your shoulder, nor that you have failed to read my blog. Your position is an intelligent one. We simply disagree.

    2. The problem is that Nicky Morgan’s contribution to the arts/science debate occurs in a context in which arts subjects in have been under constant criticism and attack from the government, making it clear that studying arts subjects is not worthwhile Ms. Morgan is simply carrying on from where Michael Gove left off. As a consequence schools are reducing and in some cases removing arts subjects from the formal curriculum, the Russell Group of ‘elite’ universities published a list of the ‘facilitating subjects’ required for entry which contains no arts subjects, the Dept. for Education’s review of ‘A’ levels and GCSEs has divided ‘A’ levels into ‘exam-assessed’ subjects (good) and ‘non-exam assessed’ subjects (not so good). The arts subjects, for obvious reasons, are in the latter category. Circumstantial evidence points to an increasing number of young people who would like to do arts subjects being steered away from them by parents and teachers on the basis that they’re ”not worthwhile” – which is the message they are getting from people like Nicky Morgan.

      Make no mistake, this country’s well deserved reputation for artistic and creative excellence is under threat

      1. Thank you for saying all this I agree with you that the arts are being sidelined in education. We have had students who want to study arts subjects for GCSE but their parents have told them not to because” it will never get you any where” or ” art isn’t important it’s a waste of time to do it” . What they ignore is that art teaches you creativity and the ability to look at things from a different direction which is important for areas other than the arts

  22. A fine riposte to what must surely be the first in a string of ill-thought nonsense from a puppet desperate to leave a mark in the few months she has to make her name known. At least it’s a fine riposte until “[n]o-one carries a circuit board”, which I fear your critics will joyfully seize upon as evidence that your entire article is built on the sand; what lies inside your mobile phone?

  23. It would be very difficult to fit Nicky Morgans uneducated opinions into the success of the poppies around Westminster, which, not only have been created by an artist and theatre designer, but have created an international buzz, which will only serve to have a positive impact on our economy.

    Unfortunately though, in my opinion, if someone’s passion is all about rising to the top, and not skills based, be that science, art, education etc, their transparency and two dimensional inabilities become apparent very quickly, as with Nicky Morgan. She will not last long as a front bench political mouthpiece, as inevitably what she says is incohesive, unthought through and therefore, irrelevant.

    Your story, on the other hand, is so very familiar to so many people because it is the reality that happens when you follow a passion, with clarity and vision.

  24. Powerful. Thank you. I am a scientist, a craftsman for my wage, a thinker by trait, with a career more in common with yours in the humanities and arts than with anything conventionalists would call successful. That’s because I too am creative and explore, and communicate, and open the spaces in between, and I have no motivation to make anything that can be turned into cash. We (majority) outside of conventional success all contribute to knowledge and culture intangeably and immensely. It is the millions of us doing these non-valued things who create the ecology of culture from which the successful draw the raw materials for their industrialisable and hallowed products and services. Without the majority of people here in the hinterland – the ‘long tail’ – who are supposedly not successful, those besuited industry leaders would not exist. It is what we do that matters most. And we are closer to truth beauty and love than anybody who is drawn to the trough of money. My kids go to a Steiner school. One wants to be an engineer. I shall hopefully guide him to be an unsuccessful one, broad in his interest and knowledge, all the better for his true wealth and a good life.

  25. What an odd article. Doesn’t really respond to what Ms Morgan said; just gets pissed off with the worst possible interpretation of a few soundbites of what she said. Besides that am trying to work out whether “A lot of people carry a poem with them, on paper or in their heads. No-one carries a circuit board,” is meant to be a joke? Does the author know what is inside his cell phone?
    Whatever your political leanings it is surely worth discussing with young people the situation that there are far from enough people trained to do the jobs that are begging for qualified applicants, while far more people are being trained in disciplines in which there are fewer possibilities. Spelling out the advantages of different choices to people at a critical juncture in their life is surely not entirely a bad idea? Pointing out that one has a better chance of a job and a higher salary if you make certain choices is not obviously spelling the end of civilization as we’d want it. I do not think Ms Morgan was suggesting compulsory math class for all would be artists, but rather trying to initiate a campaign to help inform those 16 year olds who really do not know what to do with themselves.

    1. If you worked in education you would know that maths and science are compulsory as far as GCSES anyway . I know from experience that it is hard to get a lot of students interested in science and maths. And please don’t think arts subjects are easy . They are not. Whatever subjects students cover at school they have to be willing to put the work in to achieve good results and for some of them that is the problem. Science and maths seem too difficult . We try hard to get students to keep their options open if they don’t have a definite idea of what they want to do by studying a range of subjects .unforunately this is not always possible because of the way the subjects are arranged in the option lists. But as i said they do have to do science maths and English to GCSEs anyway.

    2. Well said, read my post if it comes up. 10 years teaching ‘science’, wasn’t allowed to teach just physics and maths, resulted in me quitting. Language classes allowed a week long jolly to France or Germany, science classes not allowed a day at the Science Museum.

  26. Hear hear!!!!!!! Very well said. My daughter followed her heart and is now head of drama at a Sheffield school. She was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 16 but with determination and hard work progressed to university where she obtained a first class honours degree in performing arts followed by an MA in choreography, then laterally a teaching qualification. I have watched her contribution to the Arts grow over the years and been privileged to witness the growing emotional development and confidence levels in her pupils. Not all, may I say, choose to follow her subject area but her direction and guidance lay the building blocks for any career they choose to follow……

  27. Superb response, eloquently put. Would just point out, though, that most people carry at least two circuit boards with them, in their watch and in their phone. 🙂

  28. What a fabulous well thought out reply. Our education system is a shambles, designed to kill thought and expression. We are not all the same and life has a multitude of facet’s. We should encourage them all.

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