Kirsty Gunn: Blue-sky thinking on a dearth of creativity

Memorising information and writing essays by rote in a 'climate of accountability' is no way for young people to learn. Picture: PA
Memorising information and writing essays by rote in a 'climate of accountability' is no way for young people to learn. Picture: PA
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Blue-sky thinking on a dearth of creativity can help us to better enable young people to express themselves confidently as individuals, writes Kirsty Gunn.

I am in Caithness in the midst of great sheets of lovely weather. The days pass in hours of endless light, like an enormous flickerbook switching from rain to sunshine, dark to bright and back again. Racing blue skies are chased by clouds from one side of the county to the other, with the sea opening and closing down its colours to match, all silver and gun metal, then navy, then cornflower and grey. A mass of a violet-coloured storm with a torrential downpour is followed by a sudden wave of bumblebee heat. The wind rises, battering and sounding, and then pauses, stops, still as a cat on a doorstep in the quiet and calm.

Last night I was out in the pale green light of late evening with my sister’s little tomboy of a collie and her much older, slower dog, thinking about the way time plays out around the summer solstice. This part of the year, no matter what we think about it – that the temperature should be this or that, that we’re not quite on holiday yet, or that we can’t believe we are already half way through another calendar – feels like such a point in our lives. Of turn, of change, of possibilities and hope. There’s a sense of cheating time, somehow, in high June, in our hearts and bodies, as though all of us might have these acres of white nights and long days ahead of us. That we can do anything now, take risks and fall into a future that won’t ever let us go.

Risk was our theme at the beginning of last week when a large group of us interested in essay writing and the future of education gathered at the lovely Hospitalfield House in Arbroath to discuss how our children might escape the terrible strictures of a “Curriculum For Excellence”. That years’ long legacy of a Scottish Government hell-bent on creating grids and outputs charts where all is focused on Results! Results! has been, we all agreed, to the detriment of those whose gifts lie elsewhere or whose individuality is best expressed in other modes of communication than those represented by tick-box exams and satisfying a rigid points and marks scheme. No wonder, one of the students who was at our conference remarked, “that so many of us feel we can only get to express ourselves in social media” or, others went on to say, through the creative writing assessment that is still available as a separate part of their study.

Yet why should creative writing be constrained to being a separate subject apart from other humanities courses? Why can’t creativity be part of how we think critically? And of how we approach intelligently and broadly and deeply the ethical and political and social issues in our lives? I hate that label “Creative Writing” for precisely the way it describes a remove from other forms of intellectual activity. Because isn’t all writing and thinking creative, to varying degrees? And isn’t it a sad reflection on our crazily managed overly bureaucratic education system that students feel they can now only express themselves in a subject with the word “creative” in it?

How shocking it is that the structures a government imposes in order to press their own political agenda – proving “excellence” and all the rest of it with a bunch of results charts – leaves young people feeling that in order to get on they must only memorise information and write essays by rote. How can they learn “to take their place in the world they inhabit” as Mary Bovill, a lecturer in learning and critical literacy at the University of Edinburgh, put it so beautifully, in a morning panel discussion about teaching essay writing, in this “climate of accountability”?

Peter McDonald, the critic and scholar whose book about apartheid and censorship in South Africa was something of an academic bestseller – “ We ALL of us, in postcolonial studies, read Peter’s book” said my colleague and fellow conference host, Gail Low – was talking about how the tutorial system still preserved at Oxford and Cambridge is instrumental in helping young people learn how to think for themselves. “The first thing I say to the students when they arrive for their class with me is to throw away the rule book” he said. “I tell them that it is ok to fail; that I want them to write essays for me every week and that I’ll read them and we can talk about them but I won’t give them marks.” He went on to explain how this released students from the anxieties around failure and enabled them to start attempting to do new and different things with their critical writing; to think differently, more imaginatively, as a result. “I want to see some some glorious flops” Peter said, thrillingly, to the group of young people who had joined for his session. It doesn’t matter if you fail at first, is the tutorial approach, because in time you ‘ll learn from those mistakes and come into your own stride. “It’s about you and what you are thinking, not about me and what I think. That’s what my lectures are for” , he said, and went to to describe the Oxford “myth” of privilege and a sort of upper class elitism that, though, yes is a powerful myth, is nevertheless not the reality. The reality is a concentrated three-year period of trial and error, as he put it. Of real learning.

We could do with more of the Oxbridge approach in our schools and universities. As a way of enabling young people to express themselves confidently as individuals who constitute a wider society by showing, as Mary Bovill put it, “the ‘I’ in essay writing to be potentially kaleidoscopic” – capable of changing opinions and the world. Get Mary straight into the education enclaves of the Scottish Government, I say. Have Nicola Sturgeon listen to her, not the drone directives coming in from some totalitarian-style “excellence” centre. Let’s essay our way into the future, was our rallying cry last week. Attempt and experiment and risk and fail – and that way succeed. I’m feeling the charge of it – the energy – of trying out all kinds of new thinking, ways of being – here in in our northernmost county in the wide open middle of the year.