What are we working for?

Paul Woodward
23rd December 2016 at 14:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, What are we working for?

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

R. Buckminster Fuller

Not often I start with such a lengthy quote but reading this really opened my eyes. It wasn’t the lines about technological breakthroughs or making instruments for inspectors of inspectors; you could write a whole thesis on that one. No, what really struck me is the concept that there is no actual need to work and the worrying realisation that the youth of today are somehow right in eschewing the ‘nonsense’ of earning a living.

Traditionally, D&T evolved from vocational subjects teaching skills in design or construction that could then be developed in order to pursue a career or ultimately ‘earn a living’. Although the content has matured and developed it is still considered by many to be a ‘practical’ subject and therefore one that could lead into trades considered skilled manual labour.

Hundreds of years ago, if you wanted something you had to make it yourself or pay a skilled craftsman to do so, be that a horse cart or a house. Nowadays we live in a commercial world where modern equivalents are easily bought in retail outlets. Even furniture is available in cheap flat pack boxes requiring minimal skills to assemble. All the technology needed to communicate and be entertained can fit in your pocket for very little cost. We also have a system of social support which is often exploited but that’s a very different discussion.

Is it any wonder that the need to ‘earn a living’ is becoming an outdated concept much to the chagrin of the generation who had to work hard for what they achieved? Do we motivate students to work harder by instilling fear or threat; of failing exams, of failing to get a job, of failing to pay the rent or the car payments or failing to achieve one's potential? Without the need for work what would happen to society and why should a few work hard to develop technologies to make life easier for the masses? Stepping into social theory here again…must stop.

Getting back to the subject of D&T, how will we ‘sell’ the relevance of the subject if indeed this is a prevalent attitude of youth and one supported by such a prominent theorist as Fuller? The man was quite a visionary regarding sustainability and global implications of using finite resources and mathematicians will be pleased to know he pioneered the geodesic dome so we should take his words as credible. What exactly are we promoting to the students of today through this subject? We all know crafts and traditional skills are a (sadly) dying trade in a society that relies on cheap mass produced items and I have long struggled to promote the idea of being a joiner or carpenter to students who excel in those areas of the subject. The role of the designer is easier to sell to a student especially when it has that entrepreneurial edge. Today’s students watch programmes like ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Dragons' Den’ and see their opportunity to make ‘loads of money’ through an idea or concept often without understanding the hard work needed to bring such ideas to reality. If such a business orientated approach is the more credible career path in design then why do we still teach practical skills to students? If they do become specialist designers they are unlikely to need to manufacture anything and if becoming an entrepreneur is their goal, do they need skills in either design and manufacture or should they study business and enterprise?

I don’t have the answers, if indeed there are any, but that quote has really changed my perception of the skills we should be teaching students in design and technology to prepare them for the workplace of the future and improve their chances of ‘earning a living’. If we stop for a moment and ask what this ‘living’ actually is then the fundamental elements of teaching a subject like D&T are likely to come into question. Of course, such questions depend entirely on your own response to the above quote and to what extent you agree with it. After all it’s only a suggestion, not a directive, but I will leave you to ponder its relevance as you enjoy your Christmas dinner. Season's greetings to all readers and I hope you enjoy your, no doubt, well earned break.


Paul has taught a range of creative and technical subjects specialising in design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools, including stints as Head of D&T and Head of a Creative Arts faculty. He continues to work within D&T as a consultant but is currently taking a break from teaching to explore design in industry.

His Subject Genius blog was shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.