Professor Leslie R. Perry

Educationist who put a particular emphasis on 'practical knowledge'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Leslie Robert Perry, philosopher and teacher: born Wood Green, Middlesex 3 May 1915; Lecturer in the Teaching of History, then Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Education, Institute of Education, London University 1958-68; Professor of Education, Warwick University 1968-71; Professor of Philosophy of Education, King's College London 1971-78 (Emeritus); married 1951 Roquelia Mari (died 1984; one daughter), 1991 Diana Wright; died Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire 8 May 2003.

All his long and varied life Leslie R. Perry sustained a freshness of vision and an intellectual curiosity about philosophy, education and the arts. He had an extraordinary ability to explore connections between things in order to address contemporary issues of relevance to teachers; this, aided by his straightforward ways of communicating complex ideas, lay at the heart of his teaching and writing.

A practical man, he was as enthusiastic about obscure craft tools as about educational theory, as much at ease repairing his roof as discussing Lenin. At the age of 80 he told me,

Nobody should be expected to stay in a form of employment that bores them; they should be helped to make more meaningful connections between their work and their interests. [My interests] were twofold: philosophy and art. I found in the field of art and design education a type of work that allowed both of these interests to be pursued and developed.

Pursued and developed they were, over a period of 60 years. Having left school at 15 without any academic qualifications and finding himself doing tedious work, he began to educate himself. He studied art at Hornsey College of Art, history at Birkbeck College and philosophy at the London School of Economics, where his PhD research was supervised by Karl Popper.

He embarked on a multifaceted and successful teaching career. He taught English at William Ellis School in Camden and lectured at various times in history, philosophy and art and design education in a number of further and higher education institutes including Birmingham School of Art, the Froebel Educational Institute in Roehampton, and the Institute of Education at London University. In 1968 he became Professor of Education at Warwick University and in 1971 he returned to London as Professor of the Philosophy of Education at King's College, where his inaugural lecture was based on an analysis of the educational theories of John Dewey. During most of his time at King's he was Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Education.

After retiring from King's College, Perry, now Emeritus Professor, returned part-time to the Institute of Education where he became my immediate colleague. Until he was 83, when declining health forced his reluctant withdrawal from academic life, he made a major contribution to the institute's Department of Art & Design Education. He strengthened the philosophical underpinning of the department's teaching and research and as a result of his intellectually rigorous and analytical approach successive generations both of staff and students benefited greatly.

He enjoyed dialogue far more than lecturing formally. Above all, he encouraged students to take risks in their thinking, to abandon routine ways of working, to ask uncomfortable questions and to construct elegant academic arguments. He inspired and equipped them to challenge what he regarded as the many conceptually flawed "desperate solutions" imposed on education by bureaucrats.

More widely, Leslie Perry helped to form new national opportunities for specialist teachers of art and design to engage in academic study grounded in professional practice. During the 1960s he influenced the structure and content of the art and design elements of the innovative BEd Degree. In the 1970s his impact on the formation of advanced Diploma and MA courses enabled art and design teachers to aspire for the first time to high-level academic qualifications in their own specialism. In addition, his lifelong commitment to studio-based work nurtured debates about "practical knowledge" and the nature of "visual evidence" in research. He argued that "through direct involvement in practical work, handling tools and equipment and shaping materials, a special kind of learning takes place - through our fingertips".

As a boy, he had had direct experience of this "special kind of learning": his father was a stonemason and other relations were craftworkers in wood and metal - they learned through making. Small wonder that central to his philosophy of education was the value he attached to practical work, creative activity "through which you find out things for yourself".

Alongside his teaching, writing and personal engagement in art activity, Perry was influential in the evolution of educational policy through his membership over many years of diverse advisory bodies, high-level committees and examination boards. The Arts Council, Design Council, Crafts Council, the Laban Centre, various government agencies responsible for teacher education and the first National Curriculum Committee for Art all gained from his unassuming wisdom.

Roy Prentice