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Fintan O’Toole: We need schools for messers, dreamers and misfits

Great explosion in English rock music was unintended result of art schools

Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer who died last week, went to art school. So did at least one member of almost every great English rock band of the 1960s and early 1970s. This is a lovely example of unintended consequences – and one of the reasons we should think again about how education works.

Even if you leave aside the pleasure these bands have given generations of people around the world, they were also a vast national asset. They helped rescue Britain from a self-pitying narrative of decline. Out of postwar austerity and the loss of empire, they drew vigour and innovation and creative elan. They gave Britain a soft power to replace the hard power it was rapidly losing.

Nobody could have planned this. So how did this happen? In large measure, through something that is unimaginable now: a socialist experiment in publicly subsidised education for messers, dreamers and misfits.

Keith Richards, the other art school alumnus in the Stones, was a council estate yob, expelled from secondary school. But, as he put it, "In England, if you're lucky, you get into art school. It's somewhere they put you if they can't put you anywhere else."

If you give young people a chance and don't fret too much about trying to control what they're doing, they will find a way to do something good

The postwar expansion of art schools in England was driven by a wild idea: give working- and lower-middle-class kids who can’t or won’t go to university an alternative place to be. They were specifically for those deemed “temperamentally allergic to conventional education”.

In the 1950s, entry requirements for art schools were lax. The teaching was often loose and informal. The qualification, the National Diploma in Design (NDD) was known by the students as the Nothing Doing Diploma.

Pampered layabouts

Yet all these students were given generous grants and access to cheap housing. They were pampered layabouts. The whole system was a managerialist’s nightmare: money wasted on wasters.

And it was vastly productive. It produced artists and designers. But it also did something nobody planned or imagined. It was the petri dish in which a new popular culture grew.

The art school kids helped to make the Stones, but also The Beatles (John Lennon), The Who (Pete Townshend), The Kinks (Ray Davies), The Yardbirds (Jeff Beck), Cream (Eric Clapton), The Animals (Eric Burdon), Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett), Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie), Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page), David Bowie, Queen (Freddie Mercury), Roxy Music (Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno) and The Clash (Joe Strummer).

These asylums for nonconformists did more for Britain’s international standing than the entire foreign office. If there really was a post-imperial global Britain, they were crucial to its creation.

The flowering of rock music was a happy accident. But it could not have happened without two political ideas that have long since gone out of fashion.

One was that everyone has a right to a higher education – even those who are “temperamentally allergic” to the traditional disciplines of the university. This was a socialist principle. It was a matter of justice that the state should not subsidise only those who meet a narrow range of educational criteria. Bad boys and girls had the same rights as good ones.

Human potential

The other, related, idea was a socialist optimism about human potential. The art schools were an act of faith: if you give young people a chance and don’t fret too much about trying to control what they’re doing, they will find a way to do something good.

The authorities had no clue about what that something would be. If they’d been told that they were investing in the production of A Day in the Life and Satisfaction and My Generation and Ziggy Stardust and London Calling, they would have been dumfounded. But they made the space for these things to happen.

How did we get to a point where these thoughts have become unthinkable? How did these ideals of educational equality and creative freedom become far-out utopianism?

It's mostly useless people who have made art and come up with new ideas and generated new cultural energies

In post-Thatcher Britain, many of the art schools were closed, amalgamated or absorbed into mainstream universities. This was part of a broader international effort to make education more and more managerial, to insist on a rational relationship between inputs and outcomes, to reproduce only those forms of knowledge that we already have. It is now anathema to tolerate a system that allows people to do things we have not planned and cannot measure.

Some aspects of education do have to be rigorous and standardised and minutely tested. But there has to be room for happy accidents. And room, too, for the misfits and the dreamers and the people who don’t know what they’re doing until they stumble into it.

We have increasingly divided society into the conformists who make it because they obey the rules and play the games necessary to get into, and qualify from, universities and those who don’t or can’t. Those who cannot conform are, in our mechanistic world, useless. But it’s mostly useless people who have made art and come up with new ideas and generated new cultural energies.

To adapt the Rolling Stones, we have forged an educational culture in which authority always gets what it thinks it wants. We would be better with one in which young people get what they need: time and space to be what no one intended.