Comment: Beethoven would score below those counting his semi-quavers

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The Independent Online
INTELLIGENT ACTION is not always given the esteem it deserves in our education system. Write an essay, solve a written problem, list all the kings and queens since King Ug, and high grades will be showered upon you. Solve a tricky dispute between two people and, if you are unable to write an articulate account of why and how you did it, the best you can aspire to is a D minus for trying.

Why is intelligent action not given the plaudits it deserves? It is sometimes rewarded with medals or citations, but less often with academic awards, even when merited. Partly, I suspect, it is because of our snobbery towards people who do things with their hands.

Despite attempts to give vocational education parity of esteem, the horny- handed are not believed to be horny-brained, even though much intelligence is needed for many actions humans take. Surgeons are exempt, as we recognise that surgery is more than just deftness with a blade, or trim needlework. Otherintelligent and informed actions often struggle for recognition.

A vice-chancellor once wanted to give an honourary position to the mastermind of one of the most complex engineering projects, stretching across the land. His university colleagues asked for a list of the man's published papers. Yet here was a 20th century Brunel in his field.

The snobbery is partly to do with status and power. Fearful of the muscle and brain power of those who use their limbs, or who deal in deeds rather than words, higher status groups may play down the importance of practical competence, especially if it threatens their own prominent position. Thus people of high status can be esteemed for practical nous - for example as officers in the armed services, while those of lower status find it harder to impress.

Richard Branson, from an affluent background, is admired for the practical skill of his entrepreneurship, despite not having been to university. John Prescott, a man of working class origins, who runs three large departments of state and who went to two universities as a mature student, is ridiculed for his occasional slip of the tongue.

Yet one runs a much criticised railway service, while the other quickly grasped and began to tackle the issues in three huge and different policy fields.

In vocational education, proficiency is often assessed on the job. National Vocational Qualifications never receive the same esteem as conventional academic certificates, and on-the-job assessment is seen as a softer option than a timed, written paper. Snobbery is at its worst when refuse collectors or car park attendants sign up for NVQs. The sniggers echo round the land, as if trying to do practical tasks more intelligently is beneath contempt.

Teaching suffers from the same lack of respect. Consider this exchange between a teacher and a group of eight-year-olds learning about insects:

Teacher: "A camel is not an insect. Why?"

Pupil: "It hasn't got antennae."

T: "A snail has got antennae."

P: "Insects have wings."

T: "So do nightingales."

P: "Insects collect pollen."

T: "So do humming birds."

Teaching effectively is a highly intelligent practical activity. It is also one that can be informed and improved by reflection and reading, but in its practical expression can be very demanding of the intellect.

Yet in universities teaching is often regarded as second rate. In the Research Assessment Exercise practitioner journals are rated below academic journals. Rapid intuitive thinking and action rank beneath less pragmatic thoughts.

Theoretical solutions that don't work earn more points than practical solutions that do. According to this view of cerebration, Beethoven would score below those who count the semi-quavers in his symphonies.

But it'd be wrong to accuse universities of harbouring people who are hopelessly impractical. Many academics I know are not only highly intelligent in the conventional sense, but are intuitively resourceful and practical as well; entrepreneurial in their own field; able to take courageous risks; seize chances; work with others; and winkle out solutions where none were thought to exist.

It is often the structures and traditions that foster impracticality. Never award a university committee a free kick on the edge of the penalty area. It would need at least one three-month cycle to decide who should chair the working party set up to appoint the kicker, let alone determine the strategy.

The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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