New Delhi, January 10, 2019: Arts education is in crisis but theatre company Slung Low has set up a pay-what-you-can community college, offering lessons in art activism, wood-whittling and much more
On board a double-decker in Holbeck, a small revolution in cultural education is brewing. In this corner of Leeds, locals are learning for the love of it on a bus that has been converted into classrooms. Inspired by the education programmes that used to be run by the Women’s Institute and working men’s clubs, the Cultural Community Collegeoffers classes free at the point of use, without any obvious instrumental purpose – a gesture that is, in the current climate, quietly radical.
The college is the brainchild of theatre company Slung Low and was born out of the company’s own experience of learning new skills while making Flood, a large-scale series of works for Hull city of culture 2017. “What we found is that when we learned stuff – no matter what it was – we were generally more confident about everything,” says artistic director Alan Lane. And so the company wondered if they could pass that confidence on to others.
“We had this idea that we could open a college that would not be in any way useful for anyone’s occupation,” Lane explains. “That it would operate beyond the market, that it would be ‘pay what you decide’, and that we would teach as broad a cultural offer – from stargazing to blacksmithing and everything in between – as we could possibly finance.”
And that’s just what the company has done. In its first term, the Cultural Community College has taught Holbeck residents how to make everything from vegetarian Indian food to furniture to documentary films. There have been courses on art as activism and CPR, as well as the stargazing and blacksmithing.
Over time, the idea is that the college’s members take ownership of the curriculum, with courses selected through a dialogue between Slung Low and the community. “It’s not pure cultural democracy,” says Lane, “but it’s definitely true that there are subjects and classes that people will be able to point to and say, ‘I told them to do that.’”
New additions to the programme in 2019, which opens for booking on 9 January, include fire-eating, wood whittling and tai chi. It’s an eclectic mix and one that – quite deliberately – pushes at the edges of what’s usually considered “cultural”. In Lane’s view, “there needs to be as much high [culture] as there is low, and vice versa” according to theguardian.com.
It’s no coincidence that the Cultural Community College has appeared at a time when arts education is perceived to be in crisis. The exclusion of arts subjects from the English baccalaureate has led to a decline in their study at many schools, while the emphasis on so-called “facilitating subjects” has discouraged students from choosing arts A-level options. In his new book The British Betrayal of Childhood, former children’s commissioner for England Sir Al Aynsley-Green even includes the downgrading of arts education as one of the factors driving a “crisis in childhood”.
Lane and his team were certainly conscious of the challenges currently facing arts education, but the Cultural Community College has an offer that’s distinct from the instruction provided by schools, universities and the education departments of theatres. Slung Low want to bring in people who may be put off by traditional learning environments, and so they’ve been thinking carefully about how and where their courses take place – hence the bus, aboard which some of the lessons are taught, as well as at the Holbeck (formerly Holbeck Working Men’s Club), Slung Low’s new HQ.
Lane is reluctant to describe the course instructors as teachers; instead he calls them talkers, or experts. “There is a failure of imagination going on at every possible level of society,” Lane suggests, “and that’s starting with children in schools, where we have decided that to learn to remember things is more important than to imagine things.” He adds that “the college is a kind of response to that failure of imagination, but it’s also very aware of not trying to replicate an arts education”.
Unlike many of those fighting for arts education – including the signatories of a letter to the Guardian last year expressing “grave concern” about the exclusion of the arts in schools – Lane does not fall back on the economic argument. For him, and for Slung Low, cultural learning is about confidence, citizenship and empathy. The real question is not what arts education can do for the nation’s finances, but what it can do for people and communities. “Does it make better citizens, and does that have any impact on all our lives?”