Cambridge University prove their stupidity

by Andy Polaine on August 29, 2006

in General

You don’t have to be stupid to be a Don here, but it helps.

I really enjoyed Francis Beckett’s article in the Education Guardian regarding Cambridge University’s entry requirements which lists 20 A-level subjects considered ‘soft’ options. Beckett argues, quite rightly in my opinion, that this is basically academic snobbery and has very little to do with the level of difficulty or rigour of the subjects in question:

If what Cambridge really means is that these 20 subjects are easier and less rigorous than others, it will take some proving. A young relative of mine wanted to study A-level music technology – which is one of Cambridge’s undesirable 20 – until he saw the course and realised it was too hard for him. He took the easier option of history and politics – both proper academic subjects, approved by Cambridge.

Taking a look at the list it reads very much as a thermometer of current cultural trends. Cambridge might wish that the days of learning Greek and the ‘Hard’ Sciences are the only true education, but by failing to engage in the subjects that are central to contemporary culture they risk making themselves increasingly irrelevant (which I have written about at length previously).

Part of the problem I have with this is that it taps into and perpetuates the myth that the arts are ‘easy’. This is part of the talent myth, which essentially suggests that because one has a ‘gift’ then it’s not hard work. Yet anyone who truly knows about making anything creative knows that it takes a lot of hard work indeed. Hugh Macleod has probably most famously summed this up in his How To Be Creative essay/long blog post.

The thing that I find frustrating is that the same people who are arguing these are ‘soft options’ probably consume a large amount of the arts that those taking these subjects will produce. Not only that, they’ll be awfully snobbish about it being High Art too.

Here is the offending list, by the way:

  • Accounting
  • Art and design
  • Business studies
  • Communication studies
  • Dance
  • Design and technology
  • Drama/theatre studies
  • Film studies
  • Health and social care
  • Home economics
  • Information and communication technology
  • Leisure studies
  • Media studies
  • Music technology
  • Performance studies
  • Performing arts
  • Photography
  • Physical education
  • Sports studies
  • Travel and tourism

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Roland January 28, 2008 at 2:46 am

Hm. Well looks to me that that’s a list of VOCATIONAL not arts-based or ‘easy’ subjects. Cambridge aren’t claiming those things are EASY, but that they’re a less good preparation for the style of courses they offer, which are generally very theoretical/non-vocational.

2 Andy Polaine January 28, 2008 at 12:12 pm

That’s how the article starts too, with Dr Geoff Parks, Cambridge University’s director of admissions, feeling misunderstood.

It is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is that Cambridge’s courses in those areas are set-up wrongly to admit the kind of people who will do well in those subjects and/or aren’t teaching the kind of content that people in those professions will need. The underlying sense here is that theoretical study of, say, media, is of a higher calibre than the profession that creates the media being studied.

It’s academic snobbery whichever way you cut it, isn’t it?

3 Matt Polaine February 3, 2008 at 3:37 am

This is a left /right brain debate. Ask a leading Cambridge professor to draw and he can’t. Ask an artist to debate economic growth versus sustainable development and they can’t do it for long either.

Cambridge has snobbery all over it, but so does the RCA. Let’s not mix up different factors as the popular media does.

Universities also need defined scope. Too broad and the quality might suffer. I think this is where Cambridge is going.

What is certain, is Cambridge might as well teach footballing and singing skills, for these are the respected professions in our materialistic and gossip-hungry shallow world.

And they get paid more than brain surgeons. Mind you, I’ve been a researcher for 15 years, and I worked out that if I retrained as a plumber I’d earn more. Bollox.

4 Andy Polaine February 3, 2008 at 12:09 pm

I think there is a bit more to it than that. I agree that it is good for institutions to define themselves. Something I have long argued is that most of them have ended up gravitating towards popular Top 20 courses, which kills diversity (and skill sets). (Does the world need another MBA course, for example?)

So that entails some selection process – and that’s perhaps what Cambridge are doing here – but there is a difference between selection and academic snobbery. The idea that certain skills or professions are [em]lesser[/em] than others is the issue here. Rather than downgrading certain subjects, it would be better simply to exclude them as not relevant.

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