Get this man to Lib Dem conference!

A couplet of TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson. The first is from 2006:

The second is from this year:

(In a manner of speaking Ken Robinson has already been to Lib Dem conference, because I’m pretty sure Clegg’s speechwriters filched one of his anecdotes one year.)

I’ll let the talks speak for themselves, but one incidental observation occurs to me. I spend some of my internet time as a silent lurker on various science and skeptical blogs. This is not because I have any scientific training whatsoever – I was overjoyed to leave science behind at school. I lurk there because I can get a fix of that element that science and the humanities have in common – the concern with an evidence base, and the passionate and laudable desire to promote it in public life and policy.

The same movement, that attempt to connect the lessons of one’s own discipline with the wider world, doesn’t exist on the humanities side at the moment. Or at least not in such a self-conscious way that it gives itself a name and gathers together to blog. Humanities graduates, in their infinite variety, don’t find a specific sense of common purpose online, probably because the number of professional spheres and ways of life open to them are traditionally wide. People who trained as scientists of various sorts do feel a greater cohesiveness, it seems to me, even where they go on into unrelated fields. They have a more lasting shared culture, probably because many of their likeliest professional spheres are specifically related to their university training. The cultural glue of studenthood is very powerful, and may be sustained for longer among, say, doctors than among, say, civil servants. All this would explain why the online skeptic community has grown from that particular side of learning, even though its concern with an evidence base is not unique.

Anyway, one potential weakness in the science/skeptic outlook, it seems to me, is an occasional impatience with pluralism in education. Scientists traditionally have a hard time in terms of funding, so unsurprisingly they have developed a  sort of collective chip about it, and in particular about the idea that there could be any merit in funding certain arts and humanities subjects. Charles Clarke lost his seat at the election, and after giving three  cheers for the end of another authoritarian home secretary, I gave another small one for the end of an anti-pluralist. In 2003 Clarke suggested that “unproductive” humanities subjects could have funding withdrawn. Naturally, all the liberal arts broadsheets set off in full cry after him for being a philistine.

My response to Clarke would have been much simpler. Clive Bloom wrote along similar lines of the uselessness of much funded humanities research in the THES recently, and oddly ended up reminding me of nothing so much as  science and medical research. In so much research, in all fields, we simply don’t know how the thing ends. The applications aren’t immediately obvious. This or that obscure paper or experiment might be a tributary into an uncharted river, a new line of enquiry, a new field even. It is probably true that 50% of all humanities research is useless how-many-angels stuff, but like the man said of his advertising campaigns, no-one knows which 50% is useless.

Surely, if we take a sort of fundie approach to education at any level – from the arts, the humanities or the sciences side – we’re cutting off our own options, and far from incidentally cutting off a proportion of the population from its potential. We lose one segment of the Ken Robinsons of the world. Science training, for example, doesn’t equip you to think  about or design new education systems, or undesign them – even though a new education system might be fundamental to the successful provision of science training in future. And set alongside Robinson’s reconception of what education should be about, wrangling over which subject areas should attract most postdoctoral funding starts to look unbearably petty.

How you would even begin to translate Robinson’s vision of pluralism and local variation into reality, and basically give education its own inbuilt capacity to evolve and meet humanity’s needs, is an entire culture of blogs unto itself. (And free schools look like the clumsiest of first attempts, set uselessly within the same old framework.) But you certainly couldn’t expect to be successful if you began by rejecting one of those two basic tenets, and it’s a shame to see otherwise thoughtful people moving in that direction.


  1. thankyou! wonderful inspiration I wouldn’t have seen if not for your post!

    very liberal don’t you think! have lots of Tories and socialists choking on bile! (happy thoughts)!

  2. This is not because I have any scientific training whatsoever – I was overjoyed to leave science behind at school.

    Hah! Same here. And then I started to discover science about four years ago, and now know a bit more than I did. But I was lucky, in that the school I went to when I was 5-13 taught basic literacy (the old fashioned way) and basic numeracy, and other useful things like Latin (anyone doubting the utility of Latin should get someone who learned it and someone who didn’t to try and learn any other romance, or even Indo-Europoean, language and see who’s quicker). Once they’d done that, they tried to get you interested in learning for its own sake. And because you had the tools, you could. And this wasn’t the 1950s, it was the early 90s.

    So yes, I was lucky. According to the Department of Education in 2006, 42% of British children weren’t. They left school without a basic level of functional English. 47% didn’t have basic numeracy skills., and just in case anyone happens to be amongst that 47%, that’s damn near half of all pupils in the UK not functionally numerate. According to the grauniad in 2007, 100,000 pupils each year leave schools functionally illiterate. None of these children is going to do anything of note in the arts, the humanities or the sciences, becuase they can’t read or write or add up.

    Sorry, bit of an essay (perhaps ironically) but yes, Charles Clarke and his ideas of education as training were abhorrent. Yes, education should not be a fast food industrial model. And yes, good teachers are the ones that can excite the desire for learning and the hunger for knowledge in children, and in many ways it doesn’t matter what that knowledge is.** If we are going to teach children in a pluralistic way that addresses their individual strengths then that’s great, and go pluralism. But can we please teach them to fucking read first?

    Great vids btw.

    *not literally. I know as well as anyone that literacy rates were actually quite good but availability of reading material wasn’t.

    **I don’t get the people who knocked the semi-mythical Beckham studies. If you study anything in a rigorous and scholarly way it is bound to have benefits, surely?

    1. amusingly, given my rant, just realised that the first footnote relates to something I deleted. Mea culpa, or rather, bum. And there are spelling and punctuation errors. Mea maxima culpa, or rather, bollocks.

  3. JohnM,
    Speaking as a socialist (a proper one – the sort that thinks Tories are vermin and loathes New Labour) I quite like Ken Robinson. I mean, he’s infinitely preferable to Charles Clarke. (You don’t think Charles Clarke is a socialist, do you?)

    Anyway I thought this was an interesting post. Something occurred to me while I was reading it. To say that you see no point in studying or funding the arts and humanities is to say that you have lost interest in our species, isn’t it?

    Charles Clarke probably has or else (more likely) he simply isn’t ‘one of us’. Maybe it’s like that episode of Dr Who were the government has been taken over by aliens who sip themselves up inside human bodies. I’m sure that explains New Labour.

  4. Ken Robinson is brilliant isn’t he? I’ve been evangelising that first talk for a while now.

    I thought it interesting that he gave a little mention to home ed in the second talk – I do wonder if the kind of personalised education he aspires to can ever be delivered by a school.

    1. Interesting. If so I think it’s an evolution in his own thinking, because the story he relates about Gillian Lynn in the first talk isn’t actually about precise, individualistic teaching, it’s about her finding her tribe. The moral of that story is that teaching in the right tribes works. I like that idea.

      But of course, no locality could have appropriate schools for the dance tribe, the highly academic tribe, the sports tribe, the computer programming tribe etc. So the only solution I could come up with was boarding schools, which is likely to be about as popular as universal home ed. One might have to call them regional schools instead to evade the associations. The principle isn’t really any different to parents who take their kids to specialist dance and drama schools outside hours now – it’s generally much more hassle in terms of journey times etc, but it’s rarely impossible.

  5. I think you’re misconstruing Clive Bloom’s argument. He’s criticising the AHRC funding structure more than anything else and he’s right to do so. Or rather he was right. But the structure has now changed; instead of the AHRC making funding decisions at the postgraduate level they now rely on the universities themselves to do so (which is slightly better than the old one for good students at middling institutions and worse for middling students with good proposals at excellent institutions; it’s a much better system for avoiding foolish funding decisions but may simultaneously make funding more academically conservative).

    That aside he also has a point as regards some humanities subjects (back when I was an undergraduate the English students at my college were being supervised by a chap doing his PhD on ‘the use of inverted commas in Hamlet’ (apparently if you’re a wannabe Shakespeare scholar the scope for ‘new’ is pretty limited)) however in those cases you want to ask ‘Do you agree this subject is a useful subject to study at university? Who else will teach it?’ The current system of about one sabbatical year to every five teaching years and fairly low grants for conference and research purposes is not that terrible and unless you persevere in the idea that people can make top quality teachers without actually having any new ideas about what they’re teaching then you must concede that it’s worth it. However we shouldn’t imagine that English and perhaps History exist primarily for the purposes of teaching the subject to undergraduates and not what you can hope for the subject to achieve.

    In my own subject of philosophy there is a problem in that much of what is done is not worth doing (there’s a fabulous article on this by Daniel Dennett called ‘the trouble with chmess’) however the process of deciding which bits those are is (a) ongoing and (b) not something which can be decided sensibly by fiat either by (b1) the AHRC or likewise body or (b2) senior academics, indeed it is precisely if the decision is left to senior philosophers to determine which are the good parts of the discipline that, at least in my view, the only parts you’ll be left with are the BAD BITS (the philosophical work conducted in total ignorance of work in psychology, criminology, the biological sciences, linguistics and political science) and they’ll scrap the good bits, the genuine interdisciplinary work. ((example; ‘inderdisciplinary’ is a word which used to be used by the AHRC to justify favouring particular proposals. However good, hard interdisciplinary stuff work be working on e.g. the consequences for moral theory of recent work on the neuroscience of moral cognition. The ‘interdisciplinary’ work which the AHRC liked to avoid was things like ‘our theme this year is terrorism; we shall give money to ‘the role of terror in 16th century french verse’ and ‘a philosophical investigation into the concept of terrorism (conducted by people who refuse to read the work of the likes of Richard English or Louise Richardson).

    A proper approach to HE reform would be to look at the dynamics the current system produces. The RAE ‘experiment’ has turned out to be a total failure and simply emulates the worse aspects of the tenure track struggles over in the states. (See Simon Blackburn on the subject here; ) creating a dynamic towards time-consuming and unproductive own-laundry-taking-in when in fact pressure should be exerted in the opposite direction; to make academics invest time and energy to produce major and important work and to make that work as accessible and relevant to the non-specialists as possible (not necessarily to ‘the man on the street’ but, as an example, it is revealing how useless to the project of empirically studying morality mainstream moral philosophy is (or comparable practical projects such as investigating moral development or suggesting rehabilitative frameworks or analysing the differences between various forms of moral failure) likely because the intention to so has not been what has drive then theorising so much as finding e.g. a metaethical position which makes sentimentalism about moral properties compatible with David Lewis style approaches to propositional content and Hilary Putnam’s arguments for content externalism etc etc).

    P.S. – The comments on Bloom’s article are hilarious as more worth reading than the article.

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