The ‘hardest’ thing I have done in my entire life was to train and work as a professional dancer. Harder than writing 20+ books; harder than working as a teacher in a really, really tough school; harder even than childbirth. When you have dipped your bleeding toes into surgical spirit to toughen them for the next performance, then you know what ‘hard’ is. When you have forced your legs into the splits, and held an arabesque in place until your muscles scream for relief, and tried again and again to complete 32 fouettés, then you get some idea of what the word ‘hard’ really means.
But my version of ‘hard’ pales into insignificance alongside that of Ann Daniels, who was part of the first women’s team to walk to both the North and the South poles. I was lucky enough to hear Ann speak recently, at a Conference held by the British School of The Netherlands. She talked about the extreme cold, about the frostbite, about breaking the ice to get into your sleeping bag. She explained how working as a team was essential for survival in this the most difficult of terrains. And she told us about how close she came to death. She described how, at the most difficult moments, you have to dig deep inside. You get down to the essence of yourself. You finally figure out what really matters to you.
Earlier this week I got into a discussion on Twitter about group learning. One of the statements made was: “There are very few circumstances where group work assists learning in academic subjects.” Well this got me to thinking – what exactly do people mean when they say an ‘academic subject’? And do our political masters seriously want us to start ranking subjects (and presumably their teachers too) from hard to soft? Is the inference here that, to paraphrase George Orwell, ‘all subjects are equal, but some are more equal than others’?
As a writer, I make my living out of the subject English. It’s a core subject, but is it an ‘academic’ one? Well, people certainly study it in academia. Professors build entire careers out of the study of obscure branches of literature. But if I were to describe the ‘things that I do all day’ as a writer, they might not seem particularly academic to you. Expressive, yes. Creative, yes. Technical, yes. Disciplined, certainly. But academic? Well, I guess sometimes I look stuff up. To my mind, there is no such thing as an ‘academic’ subject. In school, and in exams particularly, some subjects require us to memorise more knowledge than others. But any subject can be ‘academic’ – any subject can be studied as an academic exercise, for its intrinsic value, rather than for vocational ends.
Each subject is beautiful in its own right. Each subject has its own language. In dance, the language is that of movement, which can be transcribed onto the page using dance notation. The positions and movements have names (knowledge), that you must learn – you have to know what is meant by arabesque, plié, fouettés. There is a history that informs your work as a dancer – without an understanding of what came before, you are limited as an artist. You must build technique, using your body as your instrument. You must learn how your subject works together with others (art, music, drama) to create a significant whole. All this is echoed in every other subject on what we call the ‘school curriculum’.
Please let’s stop talking about hard versus soft subjects. Please let’s stop trying to divide education into academic subjects versus practical ones. Perhaps you believe that dance, or drama, or art, or music, or physical education are soft subjects, not hard ones. Perhaps you feel they matter very little in the grand scheme of things. Well, if that’s the case then I’d like to throw down a challenge: Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.