All around you is silence

Creativity is creeping back into the school curriculum, but to succeed there must be room for mystery

Philip Pullman
Thursday June 5, 2003
The Guardian

I wonder if the tide might be changing. Earlier this week, at a conference on creativity in schools, the education secretary, Charles Clarke, and the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, both affirmed in unequivocal terms the place of the arts in the curriculum. The conference, which was sponsored by both their departments, brought together teachers and members of arts organisations, and featured some excellent dancing by sixth-form pupils, and a superb demonstration of teaching rhythm.

What's more, Charles Clarke was forthright in his declaration that teachers have permission to do creative and interesting things, and that children's literacy and numeracy can only gain from this freedom.

So far, so encouraging. But all the art that was talked about and displayed at the conference was performance art, collaborative, interpretive art. It stressed the value of teamwork, and it culminated in public performance and immediate understanding and approval. It was very good; but there are other kinds of art as well, which are private, secret, personal and which take time to reveal their effects. These forms of art are shadowed by mystery; their outcomes are unpredictable; they carry with them the continual possibility of failure.

For example, writing a story (which is the only art I know much about) feels to me like fishing in a boat at night. The sea is much bigger than you are, and the light of your little lamp doesn't show you very much of it. You hope it'll attract some curious fish, but perhaps you'll sit there all night long and not get a bite.

And all around you is silence. And plenty of time. You're in a calm state of mind, not at all sleepy, but calm and relaxed and attentive: truly aware, truly absorbed.

Are you going to find a fish? Well, there are things you can do to improve your chances: with every voyage you learn a little more about the bait these fish like; and you're practised enough to wait for a twitch on the line and not snatch at it too soon; and you've discovered that there are some areas empty of fish, and others where they are plentiful.

But there's a lot you can't predict. Sometimes you'll feel a tug on the line and pull in nothing but seaweed; sometimes a cunning fish will flicker at the hook for a moment and disappear, with the bait in its mouth and the hook left bare in the water; sometimes a great fish will swim round and round, close enough to touch, and then with a flick of a tail plunge down into the deeps and vanish without touching your poor bait at all.

And the sea is very big, and the weather is changeable, and you really have only the most rudimentary knowledge of what things lie in the depths. There might be monsters there that could swallow hook, and line, and lamp, and boat, and you. These powers are not interested in any rationally worked-out plans concocted far away on shore; the fears and delights of fishing at night have nothing to do with rationality.

So you set off in your little boat, your little craft of habit and intention and hope, and bait your hook, and drop it in the water, and sit and wait, calm and relaxed and aware of every ripple, every faint swirl of phosphorescence, every twitch on the line, until...

That's what it feels like to me, and that's only the beginning. There are many other things to learn later on. But if it doesn't start like this, it won't be worth doing at all. Doing it like this means taking it seriously as work. It means that this is something worth doing. It means that when you've finished, you'll have something valuable to show for it. If I saw a child working like that, and I have done, many times, I'd take them seriously as a fellow-craftsman.

So my question for Charles Clarke is this: does that description sound like the sort of thing you want children to experience in school?

And if it does, then how can you reconcile it with the task recently undertaken by 200,000 11-year-olds in their key stage 2 Sats? They were confronted with four crudely drawn pictures of a boy standing in a queue to buy a toy, and they then had to write a story about them, taking exactly 45 minutes. It was a task of stupefying worthlessness and futility, something no one who was serious about the art of storytelling could regard with anything other than contempt.

As I began by saying, I think I can feel a change in the tide. There's a freshness in the air; some things are beginning to move in a better direction. But we need to make sure that public, performance-based arts are not the only ones in schools; we need to make room for silence, and chance, and mystery.

And above all, we need to ensure that children are not forced to waste their time on barren rubbish. I'd like to suggest a principle that should be a point of honour for everyone involved in education: everything we ask a child to do in school should be something that's intrinsically worth doing, something we ourselves would be proud to do well.

Mr Clarke, you're part way there, and I'm happy to praise you for it. Please don't stop.

Philip Pullman is an author whose books include the His Dark Materials trilogy - Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass

Philip Pullman