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Navigating Education As A Creative

As I’m sure anyone will tell you, our education system is not without its flaws. However, a pretty much worldwide problem is the lack of recognition that we give to creative subjects. We’ve all heard the stereotypes – art majors only do drugs in college and then end up unemployed, English majors are obsessed with correcting grammar and will also end up unemployed, and drama majors are of course all gay and will, guess what, end up unemployed. Notice a pattern?

There are so many weird and wonderful careers which allow you to be somehow creative, and yet we’re pushed towards pretty much anything else. In fact, I’ve been pushed to join the army more than I’ve been pushed to pursue a creative career. As an asthmatic, this is insanity.

This influence from the “reliable” source of my school persuaded me away from many creative careers, and even subjects. If not for my mental breakdown, I’d probably still be pushing myself to go into computer science. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great career choice. For someone else. It’s heartbreaking to watch my brother do the same – a very talented musician just going into his first year of GCSEs, he has no plans to go into music as he doesn’t know a “stable” way to do so. I’m hoping that it doesn’t take a meltdown, but the odds are stacked against him and people like him.

One of the biggest struggles that I had when choosing my subjects was the pressure to pick more academic ones. Even at 14, I had the mentality of being there for the qualification, not to enjoy it. I never even considered doing art, despite enjoying it, because of the stigma surrounding creative subjects. Fortunately, my school had a mandatory DT option block, which meant that I had an excuse to take graphics. I put the most time and effort into that subject, largely because it was respite from the stress of all my others. However, following the GCSE reforms, students at that same school are no longer obligated to take a technology subject. This means that all the people like me from younger years will probably give in to the pressure to take more academic subjects. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be isolated to my area. With many schools offering fewer GCSEs to each student, creative subjects are paying the price.

For young, impressionable students, it’s hard to find advice that isn’t biased against creative subjects. I’m lucky enough to have a family that trusts me to make my own decisions, but at the time I had a close friend who had to fight hard with her parents to be allowed to take art. This struggle didn’t stop at GCSE – last I heard, her parents had persuaded her away from the creative degree of her dreams and towards a more “reliable” career.

Not to mention all the teachers that get involved – many teachers presented advice that was more like a sales pitch. In a system where taking credit for students’ high grades is part of their job description, being academically smart as well as creative can be a detriment. Not that this applies to all teachers – I’ve been taught by a few exceptional people who offered unbiased advice and then pushed every member of the class to do their best, whatever their best was. But equally, I’ve also felt pushed towards a subject that I knew wasn’t right before even setting foot in the classroom.

Pushiness applies to any subject, of course, but teachers of academic subjects have the extra ammunition of being more “credible.” I used to have a reputation for being “smart” – secondary school slang for “takes school vaguely seriously”. Being an incredibly insecure teen, this became something that I hid behind, feeling as though there was peer pressure to keep up this image. This, too, drove me away from creative subjects, as I feared that taking art would make me somehow less valid. Of course, as with every mask, maintaining it didn’t actually do me any good. It quickly became apparent that I didn’t belong there.

There seems to be an unspoken hierarchy of subject snobbery. As a languages student, multiple friends doing STEM subjects would discuss my lessons as though they weren’t as “real” as theirs. As far as they were concerned, if there weren’t numbers involved, the subject must have been easy. I got off easily, though, compared to those actually taking creative subjects. I suspect, though, that this was partly out of shame about their lack of ability with anything like that. Many academically minded people like them fall foul to the common misconception that creative students plop out of the womb wielding a paintbrush/typewriter/camera and are solely displaying a talent that they’ve always harboured. In many cases, they’ve tried it once, found it “impossible”, and decided that it’s obviously a useless talent anyway. We aren’t taught the work that goes into creating things, or how it doesn’t flow every single day. Not to mention the total disregard for the resilience and emotional control that can come from being creative, even as a hobby.

This creates a negative mindset, even for those who are creatively inclined. With teen mental health the worst that it has ever been, many people benefit from creative expression. However, with so little time dedicated to practising these activities, it can be easy to feel pressure to either be naturally good or give up. My year 9 head of year literally stood up and told us not to pick things just because we enjoy them. Surely, if you push someone away from where their real passion lies, their grades are bound to drop?

I know plenty of teachers who would hate me for saying this, but sometimes, they don’t know best. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to step back and remember that to them, you’re a statistic. Sure, choosing drama might not look as “amazing” on your CV as triple science or computer science or whatever other STEM subjects your school is trying to push, but does it matter?

We’re threatened with hypothetical future employers who’ll choose someone else if one of our 12 GCSEs at A*-C (or 9-4) is a subject that doesn’t make us look more academically smart. Nobody told us how little anybody cares until the first day of A levels, when we were told to forget about our GCSE grades because they wouldn’t matter to any employer once we had A levels. I’m willing to bet that I’ll be told a similar thing after my degree, only with how little my A levels matter. My current CV doesn’t even list my individual GCSEs, just what grades I have. I could easily have snuck in art, if I’d been brave enough.

But even having to look at it as “sneaking in” art is flawed. That almost implies that there are no skills at all to be gained from doing a creative subject, which is pretty much the view that a lot of people try to spread. Confidence, emotional intelligence, independence, self-evaluation, dedication and attention to detail are among the skills to be gained from the plethora of creative subjects out there, which students can benefit from at any level.

I guess what I’m trying to say, in an insanely long-winded way, is that I’ve learned three major things from my experiences:

  1. Want to take a creative subject? Take it
  2. Don’t be emotionally blackmailed by teachers (or anybody else!)
  3. Even if there’s no room for it on your timetable/your school don’t offer it, make sure you don’t forget it as a hobby
  4. Remember that time spent being creative isn’t time wasted

2 thoughts on “Navigating Education As A Creative

  1. Nice post, G!

    Taking more ‘abstract’ subjects at A Level, not even strictly creative subjects, gave people loads of room to tell me my subjects weren’t real or demanding. This usually ended in them asking me a question about it and then trying to explain the answer to me before I’d even replied. Since they didn’t know what they were talking about, that technique flopped epically of course.

    Liked by 1 person

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