Kim Williams on creativity, Australian culture and education

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Edited text of his speech:

The richest and most energetic societies acknowledge the centrality of creativity to their health and wellbeing. Creative endeavour has never been more fundamental to developing a modern society. One open to change, flexible, energetic reinforcing and celebrating the intellectual capacity, capability and originality of its citizens. From a national commitment to creative endeavour; invention, employment, debate, national confidence and good social values follow. History provides the body of evidence.

In a set of impressively argued recommendations, the Gonski report said that funding for schooling must not be seen simply as a financial matter but, rather, about investing to strengthen and secure Australia’s future. Good education develops a capacity and confidence to think. Thinking begets thinking, encouraging a capacity to observe and offer comment and criticism, and to become a capable citizen.

Finland is a pretty good example of a remarkably well educated society. Ours increasingly is not. The Gonski Report demonstrated many alarming trends which have been extensively described in the media.

I think our society is increasingly governed by several sustained characteristics which are each profoundly unhelpful, indeed destructive of committed improvement and clear direction in national public policy formulation. Consequently that much abused term the public interest is serially disrespected – no more than in education at all levels. And major negative beneficiaries are literacy, the arts and sciences.

There are four dangerous trends with manifest impact on policy formulation.

First – Money is treated as the measure of value in all things rather than as one of many measures. This creates weird misalignments which result in simplistic thinking.

Second – Politicians and their bureaucracies increasingly through neglect and disengagement, debase creativity and intellect as the vital crucibles of the national future. Too much policy is a cut and paste of disparate unrelated contributions with little internal logic or coherence.

Third – the media often is unable to disconnect discussion of science and the arts and their centrality to national innovation and expression from rigid ideological positions and populist or personal ranting.

These three elements coalesce in a fourth where our society is adopting a perilous course to celebrate the anti-intellectual resulting in the triumph of ‘general ignorance’ over considered respectful debate aimed to test ideas and assumptions and arrive at evidence supported outcomes.

These forces are readily apparent in the two arenas which empower creativity and innovation like no other – the arts and pure science. Support has declined, policies are malformed on the altar of populism and ‘dumbing down’ to an ever lower common denominator, and short term devotion rules the policy day. This is allied with a fearsome trend which denies and rejects considered knowledge based debate, replacing it with dogmatic assertion.

I would describe this process as the ‘infantilisation’ of Australian cultural and science policy. Unless a different, informed, caring and activist policy stand is adopted then stagnation, declining education standards and a marked talent drain will inevitably result. Without early correction we will have a poorer society and it will become ever harder to rebound.

I would contend that in this century a society which loses contact with and commitment to respecting and appropriately resourcing pure science and the arts across many domains, will decay.

Science has been waning in Australia for way too long. Maths and science streams in schools have seen alarming declines in normative performance levels and there is a dysfunctional challenge in policy and funding in research and scientific direction. The three word slogan rules policy formulation. Needs analyses with carefully defined priorities, backed by durable tested refinement, are distant memories.

The performing arts, our galleries and museums and our education system central to their health are in real decline. Resourcing is compromised and no longer a priority reviewed with forensic care.  Theatre and music companies have little room for experimentation as the financial stakes are so finely balanced. Film and television drama and documentary also have severe issues demanding change.

There are so many examples that demonstrate this era of passive neglect that I could never summarise them adequately in this timeframe. However they are changing the aspiration and destination on the part of our creators in the arts and sciences in profoundly unhealthy ways. The national impact on a culture of innovation is serious. …

We are a small country at ‘the bottom of the world’ (notwithstanding the internet). We have many parochial pillars which whilst ‘cheerful’ to some, are venomous to national ambition and achievement.

A nation of 23 million which speaks English is either profoundly advantaged or potentially disabled as a result almost entirely of its public policy settings and the outcomes they achieve and reflect.

Take arts policy as an example. The ALP has an (no doubt well intentioned) arts policy which tries to accommodate all comers. As a result it has little durable essence or meaning other than providing a recital of modern clichés. The federal Coalition has no published arts policy at all. None. …

The failure of political agendas in creative life is, I suggest, our collective failure.

The absence of fresh, relevant, compelling approaches, reflects a failure to renovate thinking where many working settings are in a time capsule – frozen in space and time from three, even four decades ago in their policy frameworks.

The great Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu urged audiences to listen with ‘clean ears’. It is great counsel and reflects one of many reasons to embrace changed approaches.

Learning to listen requires focus. Listening is increasingly a diminishing skill. Music study is in my view, the best way of getting there. After all music activates more of the brain than any other human activity and music demands concentration.

It is one of many reasons to abandon passive neglect and become active for education reform. Selfishly I think music and science should be at the centre.

We need to change thinking and direction. Our future demands it.


My addendum: never start with the problems (a way of ‘thinking’ that comes so ‘naturally’ to Australians – ‘Our population is too small’, ‘We’re too far away’, ‘Australia is huge, mainly desert and the distances between population centres are too great’, ‘There’s not enough money’, ‘The economy’s fragile’, ‘Our internal markets are too small’, etc., etc., etc.), start with what has to be done (i.e. what is your vision? The Americans understand this and have always drawn on it, advancing from cannibalism in their first settlement to global domination.).