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24/04/2014

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Culture – without science?

The Cultural Learning Alliance has published a report, and Roland Jackson has taken issue with it.  Below, we print the letter of protest he wrote to the Alliance’s Chairman, David Puttnam.

The Alliance

The Cultural Learning Alliance describes itself as ‘a collective voice working to ensure that, at a time of social and economic stress, all children and young people are able to have an active engagement with the creation and enjoyment of our arts and heritage.

‘The Alliance includes a range of organisations working across the cultural and educational sectors, including non-departmental public bodies, philanthropists, umbrella organisations, cultural partners, education specialists and schools. It is supported by a wider membership of over 6,000 individuals and organisations.’

The publication, ImagineNation: the case for cultural learning, is ‘a contribution by the Cultural Learning Alliance to the current debate about the transformative role played by the arts and heritage in the lives of children and young people.’

Roland Jackson objects

Dear David,

First, let me welcome the initiative behind ImagineNation, the new publication of the Cultural Learning Alliance, and its case for the importance of the arts and heritage. As you know, it’s a broad vision I wholeheartedly share.

Dear David,

First, let me welcome the initiative behind ImagineNation, the new publication of the Cultural Learning Alliance, and its case for the importance of the arts and heritage. As you know, it’s a broad vision I wholeheartedly share.

But I really do protest at the use of the word ‘culture’ as synonymous with the ‘arts and heritage’. The report defines cultural learning as ‘an active engagement with the creation of our arts and heritage’. However, it also includes the prominent sentence: ‘Culture is the way we come to know the world, individually and collectively.’ That is a rather better definition and it most certainly includes the sciences and humanities, which have otherwise gone missing in your vision and description of culture. The sciences and humanities are integral to our culture and shape our whole world and our understanding of it. They are not something separate and disconnected from culture.

This appropriation by the arts community of the word ‘culture’ (and often the word ‘creativity’ as well, but that is another story) distorts all discussion about what culture really is. It perpetuates the Two Cultures divide and insidiously implies a vision of the sciences as acultural if not anti-cultural, and lacking creativity. It leads to Cities of Culture effectively being arts festivals and the Cultural Olympiad lacking almost any engagement with, or recognition of, the huge cultural impact and implications of the sciences and engineering.

I doubt the Cultural Learning Alliance will wish to change its name, though I hope it will reconsider, but this is more than a question of semantics. It is a question of substance and blinkered mind sets. I would certainly urge the Alliance to continue to emphasise the importance of the arts and heritage, which are vital for personal and societal well-being, but I would ask you to refrain from claiming or implying that they alone constitute our culture. Some explicit recognition in your work and activities of the creative nature of the sciences and humanities as integral parts of our culture might go some way to redressing the balance. Or, more appropriately, you might refer simply and clearly to ‘arts and heritage education’, not ‘cultural education’, if that is what you really mean.

Best wishes,

Roland

David Puttnam disputes the accusation

While I welcome his support for ImagineNation, I strongly disagree with Roland’s assertion that our vision of culture is narrow or blinkered.

It’s my belief that the rise of the concept of the Creative Industries during the 1990s challenged C.P. Snow’s shibboleths about the Two Cultures; that division which Roland accuses the Cultural Learning Alliance of perpetuating.

Economic value includes science

While I welcome his support for ImagineNation, I strongly disagree with Roland’s assertion that our vision of culture is narrow or blinkered.

It’s my belief that the rise of the concept of the Creative Industries during the 1990s challenged C.P. Snow’s shibboleths about the Two Cultures; that division which Roland accuses the Cultural Learning Alliance of perpetuating.

Economic value includes science

Creative industries like film, music, design and fashion generate intellectual property in the form of copyrights, patents and trademarks which have substantial economic value and have had an intrinsic relationship with science and technology.

This is true of a broad spectrum of the arts which, in a digital age, increasingly rely on a symbiotic relationship with science and technology. That applies equally to making films using digital technologies, David Hockney drawing on his iPad, or the Royal Opera House making their productions available to audiences across the world using digital projectors in cinemas.

The creative and cultural industries create highly skilled jobs. They gave rise to the dissemination of innovative ideas and knowledge with applications in a number other spheres – from many of which, such as computing or engineering, they had historically seemed totally divorced.

This recasting of the concept of the Creative Industries was extremely welcome to those of us who had spent some twenty dismal years arguing with a seemingly endless succession of government ministers that creativity and culture mattered, not only because they offered pleasure and enlightenment, but also because their seemingly intangible products generated something of real value to the underlying economy, including manufacturing and engineering businesses.

In the midst of these developments, the concept of creativity, always nebulous at best, became ever more difficult to pin down. It was unquestionably an advance to ensure that creativity was not exclusively defined by its association with individual inspiration or genius.

Cinema as science

As a former film producer, I’m keenly aware that the creation of culture is intrinsically tied to scientific and technical expertise. Indeed, most of the early pioneers of the cinema were inventors or scientists like Thomas Edison, or the Lumière Brothers.

In fact perhaps the most surprising thing about cinema is that it was never originally envisaged as an entertainment medium at all. A few years after the first demonstration of cinema in Paris in 1896, Louis Lumière, confidently (if rather ruefully!) proclaimed: ‘I am a man of the laboratory… had I been able to foresee what the cinema would become, I would never have invented it.’ For years he clung to the belief that cinema was, for the most part, a scientific curiosity, and at best a minor branch of photography.

Were I to find myself working as a film producer today I would dealing with the impact of digital technology at every stage – from the moment an idea for a script appeared in my inbox, through looking at potential cast on YouTube, and potential locations on Google Street View, to screening the completed movie on a 3D digital projector.

Complex interactions

In the end, the creation of culture rests on a series of extremely complex interactions between very different kinds of people, and specifically includes those working in scientific and technical disciplines. That is something which I think the Cultural Learning Alliance has absolutely taken on board. It’s also why I passionately believe that we need to do much more to promote the value of STEM subjects in schools. And equally to promote the massive potential of technology in education.

The Alliance looks forward to building on its work to date and generating a broad coalition of support which I very much hope will include the readers of this magazine.

Sir Roland Jackson
Sir Roland Jackson is the Chief Executive Officer of the British Science Association
Lord Puttnam
Lord Puttnam is a Labour peer and Chair of the Cultural Learning Alliance
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