Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig and the war on empathy

Screenshot from video reading of Peppa Is Kind by Peppa Pig on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=paM3UH_XQMY

The government’s trashing of arts education will do great harm to the UK’s ‘soft power’. But as Tom Scott explains, the damage will go deeper than that.

A few days ago, I was at a meeting of University and College Union (UCU) delegates from around the country. Hearing from other delegates about the swathe of cuts to arts and humanities courses at their universities was heart-breaking.

It’s not just that these cuts put the jobs of large numbers of talented and hard-working lecturers at risk. They’ll also be devastating for many young people hoping to be able to pursue their studies – and potential future careers – in the cultural industries. And although universities in the south west have so far escaped the worst of these cuts, there’s little doubt that the threat to the arts and humanities hangs heavily over them too.  

While university managers can and should be doing more to defend these courses, the hostile environment in which they are making these cuts is one that’s been very deliberately created by a succession of Conservative governments. In July last year, the Office for Students (OfS) – the regulatory body for higher education – announced that the annual subsidy for each full-time student on arts courses would be cut from £243 to £121.50, starting from the current academic year (2021/22).

The then Education Secretary, the execrable Gavin Williamson, announced that this move would save around £20 million – a drop in the ocean of the overall education budget but enough to seriously threaten the viability of many arts and humanities courses.

Meanwhile, space and funding for art, drama and music has been relentlessly squeezed out of the school curriculum (except, of course, at private schools). In a 2019 report on the social impact of participation in culture and sport, Parliament’s Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee wrote: “We are deeply concerned by the evidence we received around the downgrading of arts subjects in schools, with all the consequent implications for children’s development, wellbeing, experiences, careers and, ultimately, life chances.” One of the inevitable consequences of this has been to greatly diminish the numbers of students applying to arts courses at universities and colleges of further education.

The government has made no secret of the fact that it regards many arts and humanities degrees as “Mickey Mouse” qualifications, unlikely to lead to gainful employment of the sort it approves and hence undeserving of government funding.

Just as well that Walt Disney, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute, was not told he’d be better off doing a course in business studies or accountancy. The company he built on the back of Mickey Mouse currently has a market value of $178.15 billion. Or that Mark Baker, the creator of Peppa Pig – a British success story recently praised by the Prime Minister – was not informed that he was wasting his time by pursuing a course in animation at the West Surrey College of Art and Design (now the University for the Creative Arts).

Even from a narrow ‘business and jobs’ perspective, destroying arts and humanities courses is incredibly short-sighted. Many of the UK’s most successful businesses were founded by or built on the creative work of arts graduates. Britain’s cultural industries are central to what is sometimes called its ‘soft power’.

I teach on writing courses, but writing is not just about poems and novels. It’s also a core skill for many businesses and all kinds of other organisations. Most great ideas get off the ground because someone is able to communicate, powerfully and clearly, why they matter and deserve support. I hear often from former students about how valuable the skills they learned on courses I teach have been to them – not just as published authors (though there are many of these) but also in a wide range of other roles.

Educational value can’t be measured in purely business terms. But arts courses contribute hugely to the creativity of UK business. Falmouth University, the mainly arts-focused university where I teach, topped a recent ranking in terms of alumni who start or run a business.

Not that this is likely to cut much ice with the government. Why not? Because of the way it defines ‘good’ student outcomes. This is mainly based on the number of graduates who are in “highly skilled employment” or further study 15 months after graduating (until recently it was six months).

“Highly skilled” employment, on the government’s definition, does not include working as a freelance creative or running a tiny start-up, let alone writing a novel or dreaming up a cartoon pig. Rather, it’s based on the Office of National Statistics’ classification of the top-tier jobs in its standard occupational classification hierarchy: managers, directors and senior officials; professional occupations; associate professionals and technical occupations. And this completely fails to capture the career trajectory of many arts graduates, even the most entrepreneurial of these, or what they are looking for from an arts education.

Even worse, this measurement of outcomes is skewed against graduates from economically deprived backgrounds, because these students often face social discrimination that means they’re less likely to be hired to such “highly skilled” jobs. And, as Universities UK, the advocacy organisation for British universities, has pointed out, it also penalises universities that make active efforts to widen participation in terms of their intakes.

Artists and authors have rallied to the defence of arts education since the sweeping course closures were announced. In a widely shared Twitter thread, the best-selling novelist Joanne Harris wrote:

“A lot of academic courses don’t seem to lead to specific jobs. But that doesn’t mean that what they teach has no value. Creativity; articulacy; empathy; critical thinking; increased literacy; all these things are essential, not just in work, but in life.”

Dramatist and screenwriter James Graham tweeted:

“They’re cancelling art & humanities degrees at uni where students aren’t in skilled jobs in 6 months. They would have cancelled my drama degree at Hull on that basis. I wouldn’t have become a writer. I wouldn’t have written #Sherwood. Other writers wouldn’t have written theirs.”

Would this government care if Graham, who joined his drama course at Hull University from a comprehensive school in Nottinghamshire, had never had the opportunities that allowed him to go on to write the brilliant Sherwood?

Quite the opposite. And it would happily destroy the BBC and Channel 4, those extraordinary powerhouses of British creative talent, while it’s at it.

The irony is that many in the current cabinet studied humanities at university, including Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities, who has a BA in History and Politics from the University of York. As she writes on her website: “I went to a state school and was the first in my family to finish University. My family taught me to work hard and make the most of the opportunities that came my way. I honestly do not believe that there are enough opportunities for everyone in this country.”

Unfortunately, Donelan’s idea of making the most of her opportunities involves kicking away the ladder for others.

On his LBC show, James O’Brien expanded on something that Joanne Harris identified as a key quality nurtured by the arts and humanities, and on how this might explain what lies behind the government’s deliberate trashing of arts education:

“The reason why fascists hate art, or hate freedom of expression, genuine freedom of expression – they hate the humanities – it’s not that hard, is it, from hating human rights to hating the humanities – is really simple. Because empathy is absolutely crucial to resisting fascism.

“If, for example, you are being encouraged to cheer the deporting of completely innocent people to Rwanda, for the crime of wanting to enjoy freedom in this country, you can only do that by either not having or by turning off your empathy, your capacity for empathy […] Empathy allows you to imagine what it would be like to be in that situation […] And of course the most powerful antidote to that toxic approach to humanity is imagination.

“And the arts feed your imagination; they let you imagine what it would be like to actually be somebody else, whether it’s Tom Sawyer or Harry flipping Potter, whether it’s anybody at any point in history. The arts feed your imagination and the imagination nourishes your empathy.”

If you’re looking for empathy, you’d be more likely to find it in a Peppa Pig story than in the ongoing efforts of Boris Johnson’s government to destroy everything that makes this country worth living in.