Reading, Wroughting, Arithmetic

First published on November 2011.

The Russell Group of universities has recently announced that the more practical subjects at A-level and GCSE will not in future be considered ‘challenging’ enough to count as prerequisites for entry to the top institutions of higher education. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State has publicly differentiated between the serious subjects at A-level and the less serious subjects. Guess which category art and design are in? Design, which was at the core of the school curriculum in the 1990s, has become optional again post-14. And all this at a time when creativity has at last moved centre stage in discussions about business and entrepreneurship.

Babies and bath waters spring to mind. In hard times, the establishment is closing ranks against precisely the wrong enemies.

Because one thing we have learned over the last 20 years is that it isn’t about ‘vocational’ skills at all. And it isn’t even about the three Rs either…

The three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic are really, in terms of fundamental skills, the two Rs of reading and writing (literacy) and arithmetic (numeracy). There is and was a third R and it is called wroughting. Reading, wroughting, arithmetic. Literacy, creativity through making, numeracy. The basis of any well-rounded education. Educationalists have written a lot about this, since the days of William Morris and co: the intelligence of feeling, the psycho-genetic educational principle, experiential learning, ways of enhancing motivation for the more practically-minded students and so on. And yet, in hard times, all this is forgotten or dismissed as trendy theorising.

Well, it certainly wasn’t theoretics with me. I can still vividly remember the moment, when I was just seven years old, when I successfully produced a piece of multi-coloured weaving on a loom under the supervision of the elderly lady who was teaching us. The sense of achievement. The sense that intention could actually lead to realisation, learning all sorts of things along the way. The sense that technical constraints could be reassuring. That there were, sometimes, answers rather than just endless questions. And where the big questions were concerned, it wasn’t a question of learning what the teachers said (‘don’t do as I do, do as I say,’ said the geography master); it was a question of discovering things for oneself and thus internalising them. I still carry those messages.

30 years later I discovered by chance that the elderly lady was, in fact, Ethel Mairet – weaver, member of the Ditchling group of craftspeople, direct heir to the original Arts and Crafts tradition. Not someone who looked backwards, though; she used the latest materials and had strong views about industry and quality.

When English snobbery runs headlong into creative education, we all know who will be the loser. And it is happening. Again. Look at how the phrase ‘creative industries’ has become tainted goods in political circles, making way for ‘productive industry’. Look at how ‘the practical’ is being shunted into the vocational sector. Look at how ‘design’ was not considered to be a priority subject in the Browne Review of Higher Education. Above all, look at how the integral connections between creative learning/ thinking and economic growth are being quietly forgotten in discussions about education…

The philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau put this well, way back in 1762. This is a passage from Book III, his ‘Emile: or, On Education’ which I came across while I was at university in the 1960s. It helped to change my life:

‘If, instead of making a child stick to his books, I take him to a workshop, his hands work to the advantage of his intellect, he becomes a philosopher while he thinks he is simply becoming an artisan…’

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -