So what is an academic subject?

Winning design work for the Dott sustainable design challenge by year 8 pupils.

You might be forgiven for thinking this a redundant question, but for the thousands of pupils facing option choices in their schools over the next couple of months it is far from obvious.  For those of us concerned with design education the question is of vital significance.  Unfortunately, the answer that our political masters seem to want to give is disastrous.  With what might be regarded as  a kind of intellectual insecurity,  they are driving our education system back to19th century curriculum philosophy (For a succinct demolition see the article by John White in the TES, “Gove’s on the Bac foot with a white paper stuck in 1868.”)

Post Enlightenment education was based largely on a study of the classics, late 19th century moves for education for all were directed towards preparing the working population to cope with the rising demands of an industrialising society.  The fabled Three Rs,  assumed to be reading. writing and arithmetic, were originally reading, reckoning and wroughting;  in other words the basic abilities necessary for a productive industrial life.  Wealth bought you an education in the classics and perhaps a Grand Tour of Europe to affirm your superiority.  The vast majority of society was getting the basics so that they could provide the industrial muscle to keep you in the style to which you had become accustomed.  Students of political and educational history please forgive my cavalier summary.

Why does all this matter now?  Because the implicit message of this system is that there are two levels of knowledge each of which is assigned to a class of people.  Education denotes class.  Much of the thinking underpinning this is based on the notion that if you have to work you are lower class whereas if you are wealthy enough to be idle you can justify this by claiming to be dwelling on higher things.  This sort of analysis seems outdated at the start of the 21st century but its significance is that it underpins the current “back to basics” drive for academic subjects.  It could be suggested that the kind of thinking displayed by Michel Gove, who is himself the product of just such an academic curriculum, is the best possible argument against its universal introduction.

The root of the problem is a conviction that  pupils have been entered for courses which are not rigorous but are given an equivalent weight to those which are.  This problem arises from shallow attempts to measure school performance by successive governments.  Schools have, unsurprisingly worked to meet whatever criteria they are to be measured by, just as they are doing now for the infamous English Baccalaureate.  Rather than deal with the real issue we are being lead in a desperate scrabble back to the certainties of the distant past.

The reality of what I see everyday in my school is this; young people engaged in learning during Design Technology lessons which challenge them to master and employ a huge range  of sophisticated intellectual and physical skills.  Human existence is physical, emotion and intellect derive from our materiality and our engagement with a substantive environment.  We sense, process and act within this domain.  Successful Design Technology activity requires not a lower form of thinking but the very highest combination of human skill; physical, intellectual and emotional  (For a full debate on this subject read Matthew Crawford, “The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good” 2009).  For those who don’t understand this Billy Connolly’s remark when discussing modern art comes to mind, “If you don’t get it, it’s just because you don’t get it yet.”

I work in an area of economic deprivation but one with huge creative talent.  I work in an area where what we do with our pupils in Design Technology equips them for not only their own economic well being but also to build a better future for the county.  I work in an area where a developing vision for digital design and technology could spell the end of the drain of talent as our young people leave the county to find work.  I work in an area wherea where we may never achieve these things because of government dictat.


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