On 22 September, I watched as Judith Collins and Jacinda Ardern battled it out at the first leaders’ debate. As a Year 13 student, I was most interested in what each leader had to say about our education system. Collins placed great emphasis on getting more students into STEM subjects – and completely ignored the strengths of young creatives like me.

I was crushed.

Creativity is hugely underrated. And now, it’s even being dismissed by the top level of leadership. The ability to look at problems in abstract ways is a necessary and tangible skill, but the value we place on creativity has slipped. Our society is dominated by the belief that STEM, or science, technology, engineering and maths, is the way of the future – and that creativity isn’t.

National has big plans for the tech sector. With an aim of doubling the size of the industry with a $1.29 billion cash injection and to increase tech exports from their current total of $8 billion a year to $16 billion by 2030, it makes sense that Collins’ focus is on getting more young people into the business. There’s no denying that developing new technology is vital.

But what about those of us who simply aren’t into STEM?

Maybe in Judith Collins’ perfect, National-led world, every student will be excitedly clutching their calculators and crunching out algorithms on computer programmes. She even wants to open a special charter school focused on STEM subjects. But this is the real world, and STEM isn’t for everyone. Students with creative talents are being pushed aside, replaced by those who hold the “key to the future.”

Collins’ soliloquy on the importance of getting youth into technology was zealously delivered: “These are the sorts of things we should be doing,” she exclaimed. “We need our New Zealand kids to be up-to-date with STEM subjects, to actually learn about science and technology.”

While it’s not clear what getting “up-to-date with STEM subjects” actually means, forcing young people into subjects they don’t enjoy, or don’t see themselves furthering in, is a recipe for failure. Science and maths are already compulsory subjects at most schools until Year 12, and students deserve to choose what they advance in in their final years of school. Pressuring kids into classes they’re not good at is never going to work.

Collins’ blatant favouring of the STEM kids is a snapshot from a big-picture problem: creativity doesn’t matter. My creative talents are constantly being undermined – by peers, by teachers, and now, by leaders. I’m always seeing students pushing aside subjects they love in favour of taking something more “useful.” As university draws near, passion is replaced by practicality – friends giving up the opportunity to specialise in what they love because of the idea that “This will never get me anywhere.” We’ve been programmed to think that creativity does not equate to a career, and the likes of Collins emphasise the popularity of this misconception.

The neglect of creativity is everywhere. Support systems barely exist to encourage students into creative careers – far more scholarships are available for STEM students than they are for those going into Bachelor of Arts courses. We’re controlled by the black-and-white belief that creativity is merely “art”, but creative thinking is so much more. Creativity is just as essential to a flourishing society as skills in the STEM subjects are. In fact, creativity can be hugely useful for STEM careers with skills of strong organisation, communication, analytical ability, and vision.

It’s time that creativity was removed from the sidelines and given centre-stage. Equal encouragement needs to be given to the arts and STEM, because both are equally crucial. If Judith Collins wants the next generation to be impassioned, enthusiastic workers, then she ought to be celebrating creativity, not shunning it: We need our New Zealand kids to be up-to-date with STEM subjects – and with the arts subjects too.

HANNAH MARSHALL is an aspiring author, rock music enthusiast, and professional chocolate eater.

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