Who'd Be A Teenager Eh? - The Arts in Climate Education

Matt Carmichael
September 25, 2022

Matt Carmichael is a Climate Commissioner and sixth form teacher who attended our August Teach-In. He spoke about the importance of the Arts and Humanities in climate education. The following post is a transcription of his wonderful, thought-provoking speech.

Yeah, who’d be a teenager eh? The young people who organised today’s event and the ongoing brilliant Teach the Future campaign are an absolute inspiration, and I feel very privileged to be invited by them to speak at this Teach-In about the crucial role of the arts in a curriculum that teaches the future properly.

But I bet in some ways, these young people are not that different from every other teenager. In 1990 when I was 17, I was head boy at my school and I’d won the regional observer Mace debating crown. So I was invited by the local North Yorkshire county council to do an afternoon speech at the charity banquet. I was sitting next to the mayor at the table and I could hardly eat anything I was so nervous. I’d done my little talk, it went down a storm and the mayor said to me “You’re a very impressive young man.”

And I just remember thinking “It’s all an act!”

You know, just before this event I’d yelled at me mum, me poor mum. I was madly in love with Claire Furth, she didn’t know a thing about it. I was getting Ds in Chemistry. I couldn’t decide whether communism or theocracy was best. Erm, absolute chaos.

But the thing that saw me through all this typical teenage turbulence was music. I was the Stone Roses and Bob Dylan and James. But far more importantly to me, my guitar. And I’d spend hours on end alone in my bedroom working out how to play their songs and then I started writing my own songs, singing them to Speedy, our Jack Russel. That creative outlet allowed me to process all the confusion, intensity and angst of my very average adolescence and turn it into something beautiful. Something that ended up bringing people together when I finally gained confidence to perform in public (and you’ll be glad to hear that Claire Furth was impressed).

Being a teenager hasn’t got any easier. The hormones haven’t changed and the world has. About a fifth of 16-18 year olds is actually diagnosed with a mental health condition. And increasingly one of the pressures on young people is anxiety about the climate and ecological emergency.

In this year’s Pearson schools’ report (and you can see a brilliant little graph on their website) erm teachers noticed a 49% increase in awareness around climate change, and a 25% increase in related anxiety. And that was before the heatwaves. Which I think looks like it may mark a kind of watershed moment. You know we’ve had floods and storms and wildfires and countless disasters far away but the universal shared experience of that burning heat and breathing in air hotter than your lungs has really frightened people. And science alone can offer little comfort.

The fact is it will get much worse before it gets better and it’ll get much worse unless we start treating it like the existential crisis that it is. So having lived with feelings of deep anxiety fear and dread and sometimes despair for 16 years now, it’s abundantly clear to me that all of us who have had the courage to square up to these issues, we’re in the vanguard of a massive public mental health challenge.

So what can we do about it?

Well we’ve just lived through a massive public mental health challenge. And I was struck by something Peter Bazalgette, Chair of ITV, said just after lockdown about how that experience had showed up how badly we undervalue what he called soft subjects. The arts and the humanities. So I want to quote him at some length.

“Science and technology alone were impotent to see us through the crisis… The trusted news that informs our citizenry and gives us resilience in a time of crisis is itself the product of sustained investment in trained journalists. The government furloughing and loan schemes, designed to save jobs and companies, are conceived by economists. The television entertainment, the JK Rowling children’s story released online and the digital theatre that all lift our spirits in lockdown – these are the product of our thriving creative arts. Science, we hope, keeps us alive. But the arts and humanities keep us sane.”

Science keeps us alive, but the arts and humanities keep us sane.

That assertion is now backed by good evidence. The Arts Council’s report: The Role of the Arts During the COVID-19 Pandemic found that the arts played a key role in supporting mental health. Time spent on creative hobbies increased life satisfaction and decreased anxiety and depression in the pandemic. That especially worked for the most hard hit groups. And it worked through well understood psychological processes.

A recent Parliamentary report looked into the value of social prescribing - this is where doctors, instead of prescribing drugs, they prescribe social activities - and this report was called: Arts on Prescription. And in an Art Lifts project, patients told to participate in music, art, drama, creative writing, they saved the NHS £216 per patient through reduced GP visits and reduced hospital admissions.

Schools are society’s way of preparing children for their adulthood. If we want them not just to stay alive but to stay sane, in the future we adults have left for them, they’re going to need their guitars. They’re going to need music, and art, and dance, and sport, and literature. They need the skills to make those things, to share them, to participate in them, not just to consume them. They’re going to need these outlets their whole lives so they can make beautiful, communal meaning out of the heartache of living and raising children in an even more chaotic world than 2022.

But right no we’re going in the diametrically opposite direction. For 20 years, successive governments have side lined the arts in our education system. And the recent signs are that we’re kind of doubling down on the obsession with STEM subjects. Arts and humanities departments in schools have shrunk. Peripatetic music services have shrunk. Take up of GCSEs and A-Levels in arts and humanities keeps shrinking. These stats are widely available.

In a curriculum that teaches the future, this process needs to be reversed, and the arts need to be embraced as full partners with STEM subjects in the project of making a life worth living on our over heating little world. Because, we don’t just want to survive; we want to thrive.

Thank you