Don't close the door on 'soft' options

9th December 2011 at 00:00
A rigid curriculum helps no one, says Alistair Macnaughton

When you pass the door of the film studies department at St Andrews University, on the town's windswept North Street, you could be forgiven for not believing it is the university's "newest" department. It is a rather dilapidated door, the kind of entrance you might imagine leading to some grimy, Ken Loach interior.

In fact, the department has impressive facilities, including a newly refurbished lecture theatre and screening hall. I am sure, too, that it is indeed a "lively research environment of conferences and events", even if, during a week-long visit to St Andrews in term-time, I did not once see anyone going in or coming out, beyond a harassed cleaner carrying a mop and bucket.

The door sticks in my mind not just because you would expect a world-renowned university to do better with their entrances (what price a brass knocker?), but because, in a way, that door is an indication of status and a trailer of where our educational narrative is headed. With more and more universities declaring their preferred A-levels for particular courses, with the Government's English Baccalaureate straitjacketing GCSE choices in favour of "harder" subjects and with the media doing their bit to devalue "soft" options, will there be anyone left in 10 years' time to knock on that door in North Street?

Many, of course, will not care. As an otherwise perfectly sensible colleague asked me recently, "How can you object to a bit of sensible rationalisation that means schools will finally be teaching proper subjects again?"

The perennial question of what is "proper" and what is not in education is a good one for school debating societies to chew on, but when it takes the form of Government educational engineering, an overly rigid curriculum and thousands of pupils with disappointed hopes, it is a different matter.

We should not forget that the subject I read at university, English literature, was once considered so improper that it was treated, at best, as an adjunct to classics. The study of the novel has, thanks to FR Leavis and others, become intellectually respectable. But it is not so very long since the novel was considered to be highly questionable entertainment, akin to smoking opium or hanging about with scantily clad actresses.

Now that I have moved from teaching English to media studies, the old murmurs about my subject's marshmallow softness have become shouts of abuse. And yet, when we live in an age where the medium and the message are so interfused, there has to be a place for media studies - if only so that young people can be made more aware of the many ways in which a message is "spun" for whatever audience it is trying to entangle.

And if "soft" implies that the subject is "easy", can I ask again why dreamily speculating about the cosmos in physics is somehow intrinsically harder than analysing mise en scene in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky? Or why studying the pickled classics of Moliere and Racine is more demanding than the challenging films of Truffaut and the French New Wave? Or why just about everything sheltering under the retracted umbrella of "hard" subjects is felt to be so much more valuable than broader contemporary learning that young people can actually relate to?

As the tyranny of hard subjects over soft subjects grows, the effect will be a general impoverishment and an unbridgeable gap between our educational system and the country's real culture. And how long will it then be before the film studies department in St Andrews gets the new door it really deserves?

Alistair Macnaughton is head of The King's School, Gloucester.

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