Friday, February 10, 2012

The academic hijacking of the arts

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 1.)

Question: Which of the following writers acquired their skill as a result of attending a creative writing course – Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Dickens?

Answer: None.

Question: Which of the following songwriters acquired their skill as a result of acquiring a degree in composition – Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael or Lennon and McCartney?

Answer: None.

Question: Which of the following famous film directors acquired their skill as a result of studying filmmaking – Frank Capra, John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock?

Answer: None.

I could go on, but I think you can see where this is heading.

It’s all to do with what I call academic capture, a phenomenon of our time whereby skills that were once acquired intuitively or “on the job” must now be learned in a classroom or lecture theatre.

What set me off on this theme was a recent article in the British magazine The Spectator in which the author Philip Hensher reviewed a collection of essays celebrating the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia.

The UEA creative writing programme is one of about 100 similar courses available in Britain. It has been going for 40 years and Hensher describes it as by far the best known.

“Probably most people who want to become writers would like to study there,” Hensher writes of the UEA. It follows that the course’s tutors can have their pick of the most promising applicants. Hensher then asks: “So why do they struggle to produce 20 famous names from the last 40 years?” Good question.

Of the nearly 300 writers who have completed the UEA course, Hensher says he has heard of 50 and read work by 20, “not all of whom I would regard as significant or even particularly interesting authors. Why doesn’t UEA do better?” Again, good question.

Before I go on, I should point out a couple of things. First, a subsequent letter to The Spectator revealed that Hensher, having been turned down for the job of professor of creative writing at UEA in 2007, may have been writing from the perspective of a sore loser. Second, Hensher admits that he teaches creative writing at a rival institution, which raises further questions about his impartiality. Yet his article raises some interesting points.

Hensher observes that the traditional formula for success as a writer – namely, reading a lot of books and attempting to write your own in the evenings or while on holiday – has been supplanted by the degree in creative writing.

“I suspect that most would-be authors nowadays don’t think there is any other route to publication,” he writes.

The confining mindset he’s describing – that nothing is achievable unless you’ve completed some officially endorsed course – doesn’t apply only to writing. Innumerable skills and occupations have fallen victim to academic capture, including my own of journalism.

I have written before in this column about journalism’s transformation from an occupation where you acquired the necessary skills on the job to one that now demands an academic qualification, too often taught by people with little or no track record of their own. This has changed the nature of journalism and the type of person attracted to it – to the ultimate detriment, I believe, of the profession.

Nursing went the same way when training that was previously hospital-based moved into polytechnics. I have nursing friends who learned under both systems and they are all adamant about which they would prefer. Even the polytechnic-trained ones believe the old way provided better preparation for their career.

Cooking is another skill the teaching of which has largely been institutionalised, yet the most accomplished chefs I know were either self-taught or started out as lowly kitchenhands who learned by watching and doing.

The academic hijacking of vocational training has reached such a ludicrous point that Sir Robert Jones – or Bob Jones, as he prefers to be known when in his writer’s persona – devoted his satirical novel Degrees for Everyone to the subject. Jones bemoans the fact that universities now offer “nonsense degrees in nonsense subjects” and that rigorous scholarship has been undermined by commercial considerations – namely, the need to get bums on seats and therefore qualify for government funding.

A more recent phenomenon is the one addressed by Hensher. I refer to the fallacy that artistic accomplishment – whether it be in writing, music, filmmaking or whatever – is somehow dependent on having the right academic training.

Gullible students (presumably with equally gullible but well-heeled parents) are now sucked in to signing up for university courses that purport to teach them how to become pop musicians or write hit songs. But how many hit songs came out of university courses? None that I can think of.

You either have a gift for something or you don’t. I don’t believe it can be instilled. The writers, filmmakers and composers listed at the start of this column didn’t learn their craft from lecturers in sterile classrooms; it was intuitive.

It may seem incredible in this qualification-obsessed era, but Shakespeare somehow managed to produce the greatest body of literature in history without the assistance of a lecturer telling him where he was going wrong.

Lennon and McCartney couldn’t even read or write music, yet they composed some of the most popular songs of the 20th century. Frank Capra, arguably the greatest Hollywood film director of the 1930s and 40s, had a degree in chemical engineering. Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote some of America’s most loved popular songs, trained to be a lawyer.

Far from nurturing talent, mediocre tutors with fixed ideas of their own can stifle creativity. I recall New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton complaining, in the most polite way, that a tutor on a creative writing course she attended tried to impose his own restricting view on how she should write – surely the antithesis of creative freedom.

I have seen the same in journalism courses, where students with a highly individual style were pressured to conform. As Hensher wrote in The Spectator: “The majority [of institutions] will always prefer the second-rate and self-limited writer to the dangerous maverick.”

While arguing that the work of the imagination – which after all is the writer’s greatest asset – can’t be bestowed in the classroom, Hensher allows that a good teacher can impart useful advice on structure and style. But perhaps the most telling point he makes is that a startling number of the writers celebrated in the book about the UEA course have disappeared into total oblivion. Well, fancy that.

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