Thursday, 14 January 2010

Words, not things

When I was at Leeds in the 1980s working on Technical and Vocational Education, one of my bosses was Professor David Layton. He’d written a brilliant book in 1973, Science for the People, which I read, and while clearing out his office before retirement he found he had a spare copy and gave me one, signed. Work I’ve beem doing recently on English made me go back to it.

The subject is the ‘science of common things’, a form of science education developed by Richard Dawes in the 1840s and 50s for the elementary school in his rural parish in King’s Somborne, Hampshire. This was science done on the objects and processes that were familiar to the children from their agricultural environment, their fathers’ work as labourers on the farms and the mothers’ work in the home. Dawes used knowledge from physics and chemistry to supplement the children’s observation and experiment, with the aim of giving them useful knowledge that would make their lives more interesting and their future work both more effective and more meaningful to them. By developing their powers of investigation and reasoning, this education would enhance their self-respect and make them better citizens and Christians. An admirer and collaborator, Henry Moseley, HMI, observed that Dawes's was a curriculum which 'deals with reason rather than with facts, and with things rather than with words'.

Elite education has mostly been concerned with words rather than things, or with abstract form rather than with concrete substance. It struck me how true this was of my own archaic classical education. It was entirely about words and their arrangement. Words, not meanings except the dictionary meaning of items of vocabulary; words and their arrangement rather than their use to affect situations (except the awarding of marks). The making of texts, not doing stuff in the world.

That was the lessons taught by the classics department. English Literature was more meaningful because inevitably more about the meanings of, for instance, characters’ actions.

What my friends on the ‘science side’ got (we were unbelievably specialised from the age of 12) was the sort of science that by 1860 had won the brief battle with Dawes’s science of common things. Grammar school science was very much about abstract structures and very little about the physical and chemical processes one might be involved with in everyday life; in so far as any concrete ‘common things’ found their way into the lab, they were there merely as contingent instances of universal abstract forms and laws.

It has, of course, been this (gentlemanly) prizing of the verbal, the symbolic and the abstract over concrete and specific realities that has confined practical education in England to its permanent low status -- a point when David made insistently throughout his career, and latterly in his one-man campaign for serious education in technology: technology as doing stuff with stuff, that is, not as computers.

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