The useful and the useless

Stephen Petty

Another great rift has appeared in education. A once warm and friendly family has been split in two by a peculiar force beyond our control. The historians and geographers within our team have got wind of the fact that they alone in the humanities department teach what in England are now officially known as "facilitating" subjects. They are the only ones deemed to be delivering something with enough substance for serious consideration by the Russell Group of self-proclaimed "top" universities.

Whereas our historians and geographers are deemed to offer students prime cuts of beef, the rest of us are evidently flogging dodgy burgers and sausages. They are the royal baby to our royal bastard, the triple-A credit rating to our sub-prime. In consequence, old-school A-level league tables have been superseded by the new Russell Group super-league version, focusing only on the subjects that really "count" for something.

Given their newfound supremacy, I expect you can imagine how our historians and geographers now deport themselves. With their fine words and flowing gowns, the facilitators rarely even acknowledge our presence in the team room any more, let alone pass the time of day with us. We used to do a pub quiz together. We used to share pizzas after parents' evenings. Not any more. For them, it's now all about tea with dons and high table dinners.

Some of our most vicious facilitators even took to making unkind gestures last term whenever they sauntered past our classroom windows. This stuck particularly in the craw when the abuse came from geographers. Do they not remember a time - not so very long ago - when the "colouring-in subject" was the butt of many an idle staffroom joke?

But hardest hit of all have been those who happen to teach on both sides of the divide. In a single school day they now move from facilitating subject to facile subject and back again. This must do their heads in - all that mental stimulation in one lesson and intellectual banality in the next, never quite knowing whose side they are on, the useful or the useless.

Regardless of their grades, I naturally apologised to all my economics A-level students on results day for taking them down such a worthless, non-facilitating path these past two years. There was plainly no real depth or challenge in such a course. Compared with funky and facilitating Latin or Greek, it had no relevance - it's only the economy, stupid. I just hope similar shamefaced apologies have been made by teachers of other low-grade humanities subjects. Business studies? What use will that be in the real world of, er, business? As for media studies, what's the point of learning about that in a society increasingly driven by the, um, ever-expanding media industry? Similarly, sociology, politics and religious studies - trifling subjects for a world in need of a better understanding of, er, people, ideologies and beliefs.

And the mere fact that I believe all humanities subjects to be "facilitating" presumably just proves my non-facilitating ignorance.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire, England.

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Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire. 

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