Monday 30 November 2015

The three Rs

Doing the washing up on Saturday last, I flipped on the wireless and caught an interview with Christopher Frayling, the Great Insider of the British arts establishment.  He has been head of the Royal College of Art, a Trustee at the V&A, head of the Arts Council, governor of the British Film Institute and so forth.  The last indicates his abiding interest in film and he's written the definitive biography of director Sergio Leone and is a fan of Clint Eastwood. When poor Mrs Windsor was told to give him a knighthood, he crafted the required motto as "Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias" which is Latin for "Go ahead, punk, make my day [perfect]".  If you're part of the inner circle you can jangle the establishment chain just a little. The excuse for having him on RTE's Culturefile last weekend was his 'new' book On Craftsmanship: towards a new Bauhaus, which was actually published in 2011  . . . and quite poorly reviewed.  But that shouldn't detract from his message which was articulate, radical and valuable.

As reg'lar readers know, we didn't send our girls off to school but let them sit on the sofa or have small-small adventures on our farmlet and learn by doing.  So the Three Rs - reading writing and 'rithmetic - didn't hang over their early years like an oppressive cloud of external expectation. Even lifelong Anglophones are bemused at how R+W+A got to be called the 3 Rs. Frayling pointed out that RRR was one R redundant because reading and writing are the two side of the coin of literacy. Interestingly, the RRR epithet was first applied to different principles: reading, reckoning and wrighting. 200 years ago, educators believed that, while literacy and numeracy were handy attributes, making was equally important.  Whether you were a shipwright, wheelwright, potter or bodger, being familiar with the material world was essential if you were to function properly in society.  The history of technology in my lifetime can be viewed as progressively disempowering users "for their convenience".  My first car, a Citroen Dyane, had a crank-handle that would start the car if the battery was flat; there is nothing in my current computerised-up-the-wazzoo car that I can fix if it goes wrong. In December 1990, I wrote a Christmas-themed screen-saver, in Fortran, for the computer at work, the computer I'm now typing at has an operating system that is a bloatware kludge beyond my ability to tweak. It costs you more to make your own clothes that to buy them oven-ready. Cooking is about adding a single egg to a cake-mix designed by a food engineer.

Later on, Frayling said that 47% of the third level applied art and design departments in Britain had closed in the last few years. This is partly because students want to be millionaires or at least investment bankers rather than plumbers or potters but its also because technical departments, with their workshops instruments and technicians are, expensive. The host institutions are run by accountants who think that filling classes in more 'academic' subjects is 'efficient' or 'cost-effective' or 'serving society'. The only society it serves is one deeply divided and founded on unskilled proles supporting a diminishing number of excessively rich plutocrats.

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