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David Olusoga: Arts and media have "failed profoundly" on race and class

The British-Nigerian historian, author and BAFTA-winning filmmaker on why younger generations are facing a unique convergence of challenges, and why they need more support to build the future of society. 

March 06 2024, 11.26am

What ideas have you had to shelf, what dreams have you had to park, because life got in the way? How much potential is being stifled, how much innovation lost from society due to the relentless, ever more unequal rat race? What could you accomplish if you had more time and more space for your thoughts?

These are the questions David Olusoga wants to get to the bottom of in his role as judge of a new competition hoping to find sparks of brilliance in the next generation. The winners of the Time + Space Award, organised by the National Trust, will be awarded time, space, support and inspiration to help unlock their ideas - elements Olusoga believes are starkly lacking in modern life.

“The idea of giving yourself time, starting careers later, gap years, all of these things feel very luxurious now. Young people are losing out on the opportunities of thinking in any kind of unstructured, more fluid way,” Olusoga tells The Lead.  

When it comes to big ideas, innovations that have the potential to change the world, the British-Nigerian historian and BAFTA-winning filmmaker believes there has to be a level of immersion. An hour here or there, after work or before your studies, isn’t going to cut it. “You need a certain degree of isolation from the outside world,” he says. “It’s incredibly difficult to be truly creative without being given the opportunity to turn the volume down on everything else.” 

As a judge for the Time + Space award, Olusoga will join space scientist Dame Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, zoologist, and science communicator Megan McCubbin and social and environmental activist Tayshan Hayden-Smith, to choose young winners in four areas: science, art and culture, society, nature and climate. The competition closes on 30 April, and anyone aged 16–25 living in the UK can enter

Winners will get to stay at Newton’s home in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where the apple tree from the scientific legend still stands in the garden. It is here that young Newton - sent home from university because of a different pandemic, the Great Plague of 1666 - is believed to have undertaken his key light experiment in a bedroom now known as Newton’s chamber. He later said that at age 23 he was “in the prime of his age for innovation.”

For today’s young people - in their prime - our education systems may not be doing enough to facilitate and encourage creativity. With a curriculum that is heavily skewed towards early years development goals and relentless testing, some experts fear that our schools are actively stifling creativity, curiosity and social-skills. But Olusoga says good education often happens beyond the curriculum, in spite of it, even.

"What we need, more than anything else, is an educational system that allows teachers far more freedom to use their expertise."

“It’s easy to exaggerate the impact of the national curriculum,” he tells The Lead. “Now, that doesn't mean I don't think it should be changed or it shouldn’t evolve. It should be more expansive. But there's huge pressure on the timetable as it is.” 

Schools and academies don’t have to teach what’s on the national curriculum, Olusoga explains, adding that the nationwide guidance determines only what children are examined on - not everything that’s taught in classrooms. 

“We should recognise that teachers are, despite the curriculum, and despite political interference in teaching, enormously expanding what is being taught in schools,” he says. 

When asked how he thinks the curriculum should change under a Labour government, Olusoga believes the first step towards improving our nation’s overall education is to put more trust in teachers.

“Teachers sit in classrooms that are hyper-diverse. If you want to see the future go to an infant school,” he adds. “They want to teach the history classes and other classes that reflect the diversity, the life stories, the family histories, the migration journeys of the children they have in front of them. 

“For decades now, we have operated in a world in which the tabloids are willing, at the drop of a hat, to turn on the teaching profession - as they will on other professions - and be hyper-critical. What I think we need, more than anything else, is an educational system that allows teachers far more freedom to use their expertise, to use their knowledge and their training, to reach their children in ways that they know best, and remember that a politician in Whitehall doesn't know best.”


The entrance hall of Woolsthorpe Manor, graffiti markings scratched into the plaster of the wall, a drawing of a post windmill, believed to be done by Isaac Newton.


Inaccessibility of the creative industries presents another specific challenge for young people today, with many professions that enable and encourage innovation maintaining impenetrable barriers of elitism. Having worked across newspapers, publishing and television, Olusoga believes all three industries have “failed, quite profoundly” in terms of diversity and inclusion. 

“One of the things that upsets and shocks people in the creative sectors - in television, film, theatre, curatorship, heritage, in all sorts of places that have deemed themselves to be creative and very often deem themselves to be liberal - is that they are among the sectors that have failed most profoundly when it comes to diversity, both ethnic but particularly socioeconomic,” says Olusoga. 

The impact for young people is that only a privileged few are granted access to spaces and platforms that can bring their ideas to life. The latest report from the Creative Diversity Network found that Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are still "under-represented in all senior roles" in the UK's television industry, and representation by of South Asian people not only remains very low across many roles, it is falling.

There is a general consensus that artistic spaces are more readily available to those with familial wealth, connections, or ideally both, yet little is being done to change these industries. The UK’s most successful actor lists are dominated by private school kids, more than 54% of British journalists are privately educated, while London’s West End was described last year as an “elitist fortress”. For young people on the outside of these networks of nepotism and cliques, finding a foothold can be almost impossible. 

This wasn’t always the case. For 30 years - between the 1960s and the 1990s - higher education in the UK was effectively free, contributing to this era’s creative boom and opening doors for many to enter innovative industries where once they would have been shut out. Those windows of opportunity are narrowing again, with skyrocketing fees killing off a more diverse supply of talent

"I find the idea of people who are sitting on houses worth several times what they paid for them, wishing hardship upon the first generation to have things harder than their parents, really quite perverse.”

The worst thing about it, Olusoga says, is the hypocrisy. For industries that are historically associated with liberal politics and welcoming attitudes, the truth of what happens behind the scenes is jarring. This lack of cohesion between perception and reality is preventing progress. Olusoga calls this phenomenon “moral licence”.

“It means that if you believe you are a person who is out to ‘do good’ in an industry that's about creating societal good, there is a tendency to let yourself and your company off the hook when it comes to critical self-examination and recognising failures,” he explains. “I think an awful lot of people in these industries believe that goodwill will somehow, through some unnamed mechanism, create positive outcomes. 

“So, these sectors that are full of forward-thinking, progressive, liberal people who believe in ideas like diversity in its broadest sense - socioeconomic, gender, ethnicity - but that self belief in the virtue of those sectors can, in itself, lead to inertia.”

Young people are facing an “uphill battle” that is specific to their generation, says Olusoga. Converging crises have led to uniquely difficult circumstances for those just entering adulthood, with the lingering impacts of the pandemic teaming up with the cost of living crisis to make secure housing, solid career prospects, and even the future hope of starting a family, feel increasingly precarious and out of reach. And yet, there is an enduring myth that the misfortune of the young rests on their own shoulders, on their ‘woke’, ‘work-shy’ sensibilities, on their proclivity for wasting time on TikTok and wasting money on iced lattes. It’s all too easy for older generations to buy into the simplistic idea that struggle builds character. 

But Olusoga is not sold on the concept that hard times generate brilliance: “There is the normal historical distortion that people fall back on, which is that in times of war there are all of these inventions, because hardship leads to innovation. But one of the reasons there is huge amounts of innovation during war is because there is a huge amount of investment,” he tells The Lead. “It's the investment, and the direction of both inventiveness and industry that leads to those innovations, not the hardship.

“One of the arguments around Brexit was that we would revisit upon young people the sort of hardships of the Second World War, for no reason other than a sense of masochism, and that it would be ‘good for them’. I find the idea of people who've had a comfortable life, the most blessed generation ever, sitting on houses worth several times what they paid for them, wishing hardship upon the first generation in a century to have things harder than their parents, really quite perverse.”

However, young people have reported that their experience of being in lockdown did help them generate fresh ideas and innovations. Research, conducted by Savanta/YouthVision, also found that the majority of 16-25-year-olds (92%) see themselves as creative, but money, time and confidence are the biggest barriers to making their ideas happen. 

Olusoga hopes the Time + Space competition winners will find an escape from the demands of modern life, and the opportunity to disengage from the tangle of toxic narratives present on both mainstream and social media. On the framing of so-called ‘culture wars’, the historian’s personal strategy is always to question the terms of the argument, rather than engaging with the substance.

“These are demonstrably false arguments that need to be countered, and they need to be countered by demonstrating the false binaries and the erroneous concepts upon which these debates are based,” he argues. “There is no point in engaging in these arguments in their own terms, because very often those terms are distorted and untrue. Most of the arguments put forward about history and heritage are fundamentally flawed at a factual level.”

One example of this, Olusoga states, is the debate around statues that came to a head in light of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, and the concept of removing statues of individuals with problematic histories. 

“There are lots of things to discuss about statues, but the idea that statues are history, which is a statement we have heard from politicians, is demonstrably untrue,” he says. “Statues are not history. They're a form of memorialisation, but they aren't history. They don't tell us our history. They're not capable of telling us a story. They're not erected in order to tell us our history.” 

Olusoga also believes that the online lives of young people are far more diverse than many of us like to think, and not solely dominated by negativity, toxicity or isolation: “Young people have access to the greatest educational tool ever created, and we often forget that when talking about social media.” 

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