Gruel: the English school curriculum

Leonardo da Vinci was an accomplished student of Geometry, Architecture, Optics, Geology, Biology, Physics, Anatomy, Painting, Sculpture, Fashion, Music, Language, Psychology and more. He was the model for what we now think of as ‘Renaissance Man’ [Renaissance Woman, too – Leonardo was a gender-bender in his art and his life] – i.e. with curiosity and accomplishment across a range of discrete knowledges and skills.

The English have a deep mistrust of the polymath, the multi-skilled, Renaissance ‘man’. We think of these as ‘jack/Jill-of-all-trades’, ‘dilettantes’, ‘fly-by-nights’. We revere the specialist, and this is reflected in sharp outline in curriculum – at school and at university. We think of curriculum as a collection of subjects that reflect the specialism of those who are their curators: Maths comes from Mathematicians; Geography comes from Geographers; Music from Musicians…and so on.

Not only this, but the specialists we draw from to construct the school curriculum are of a previous generation. If a school curriculum made up of ‘subjects’ such as Geography, History, Maths, English ever carried an echo of the civic life being prepared in our young people that was, surely, long ago. What kind of contemporary life is informed by that rag-bag of subjects? What challenges and preoccupations confront young people in the 2000s? Just what are we preparing them for? Well – think of a curriculum made up of the following subjects (I’m still thinking of ‘subjects’ with boundaries around them – just for the moment):

  • Making relationships built on respect and mutual insight;
  • Managing your own, personal economy;
  • Understanding your obligations as a citizen in a democracy;
  • The ability to interpret news and information;
  • The capacity to plan for multiple careers/occupations nd understanding he nature of work and organisation;
  • Understanding society and its institutions and how we relate to them;
  • Positioning yourself as a global citizen with rights and obligations in a managed environment;
  • Understanding the many facets of the environment and how you relate to it;

….and so on.

Look carefully and you will see that nested in these are elements of Geography, History, Maths and all the rest of the so-called disciplines – but nested in them in such a way as to have a context in which to apply them and to understand them in a practical, non-abstract way.

But we are still with ‘subjects’. Leonardo studied all those specialist ‘subjects’ I mentioned above. Was he a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and ‘master-of-none’?

The question misses the point. Leonardo had a broader framework for coherence than any single subject. His overarching mission was to understand and represent the human condition, and it was this project of intense curiosity that gave meaning to his study of all that apparently arbitrary collection of subjects. What is wrong with the current school curriculum – and the alternative I began to outline a moment ago – is that it is full of fragments of knowledge with none of the binding mortar that holds them together in a meaningful mosaic. Why do we study Maths in school? Why Physics or History? How is History connected to Maths and PE? What makes the study of these knowledge fragments coherent? Leonardo could say – and did – how his study of the flow of water was connected to his research on the beating of a bird’s wing, with the anatomy of the human body and geometric proportions – and between all of these and the representation in portrait of human psychology. He had a theory of coherence which gave meaning to the fragments in a way that school curriculum fails to do. Through the lens of each ‘subject’ he could see Nature’s patterns and he could use his own passion to sharpen the view through the lens. What made knowledge coherent was intensely personal to him, only occasionally shared by other artists, scientists and civic actors. But this is in the nature of coherence – there is no single mortar which holds together the mosaic – we have to mix our own.

This is why we all leave school with only scant memory of what we have learned and with even scantier ability to apply what we have learned to life and everyday challenges. We might recognise an escarpment, have a sudden insight into the concept of ‘zero’, see the Magna Carta graffiti-ed onto a wall in Bath and remember what it was. These are a few fallen leaves which we sometimes sweep up – but they are abstract, random, meaningless, other than for a fleeting moment – then the wind of daily experience blows them asunder once more. We have not had the opportunity and guidance to develop what, for each of us, makes the world a coherent place. The subjects themselves are of secondary importance – what is primary is the development of a personal morality (what we think is a ‘good’ thing to do), a personal ethic (what we think is fair), a personal politics (what we think is feasible and worth arguing for).

In the absence of this teaching for coherence, encouraging each young person to mix up their own ‘mortar’ and design the mosaic of their life, we have just a bowl of gruel –  an undifferentiated mass that violates our desire for taste, with little nutritional value, best and easily forgotten when something richer comes along.

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