Mary Berry, CBE , is an English food writer who has become quite a national celebrity recently as co-presenter of the unexpectedly popular BBC television programme, The Great British Bake-Off. However, unlike many of today’s media celebrities, rather than being famous simply for being a television presenter, she is celebrated for having considerable other talents – among them the ability to turn out near-perfect baking at the drop of the proverbial hat, and with apparent ease. The apparent ease comes after many years of dedication to her chosen profession, having moved to France at the age of 27 to study at Le Cordon Bleu school, before working in a number of cooking-related jobs. She has published over 70 cookery books and hosted several television series. How fitting then, that her own life story would be the subject of a BBC documentary this week, and how sadly predictable that the story of her time at school would be such an unhappy one – “I can never remember, in all my life, having any praise from Miss Blackburn (the Headmistress)”. At the age of 14, she had the opportunity to study what was then called ‘domestic science’ and the rest, as they say, is history, but listen to the language she uses to describe herself, over sixty years later, despite the accumulated weight of evidence pointing to a hugely successful life and career:-
“When you reached 14, there were two options; you either took Latin and maths – that was for the clever ones – or if you were a pupil like me – it was domestic science.”
As long ago as November 2007 I wrote an article for TESS arguing that if Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence was to succeed, there would need to be a major shift in attitudes to what I called the ‘hierarchy of subjects’, a kind of intellectual elitism which prevailed in the last century and which led, among other things, to the false dichotomy between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways in schools. Scotland as a nation had always taken pride in the concept of the ‘lad o’ pairts’ which developed in the 19th Century, the ideal that a boy should strive to be an all-rounder, a pioneer, broad in knowledge but at the same time practical (Note: girls had not yet been invented in 19th Century Scotland). In the TESS article I set readers a challenge – to stop the first ten people over the age of sixteen that they met in the street, and ask them to write down – in order of importance – the subjects they studied at school. They knew, as well as I did, what the results would be; maths and English at the top, science and languages somewhere in the middle, the arts and ‘practical’ subjects towards the bottom. As I said at the time, the origins of this emphasis on a particular set of skills in preference to all others are not too difficult to trace. In Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century Howard Gardner puts it like this:
“Having a blend of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is no doubt a blessing for students and for anyone who must take tests regularly. Indeed, the fact that most psychologists and most other academics exhibit a reasonable amalgam of linguistic and logical intelligence made it almost inevitable that those faculties would dominate tests of intelligence. I often wonder whether a different set of faculties would have been isolated if the test developers had been business people, politicians, entertainers, or military personnel.”
“I have no objection if one speaks about eight or nine talents or abilities but I do object when an analyst calls some abilities (like languages) intelligences, and others (like music) “mere” talents. All should be called either intelligences or talents: an unwarranted hierarchy among the capacities must be avoided.”
Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century
The debate about the very purposes of a broad education continue to rage of course – and rightly so – and nowhere more so than in England at the present moment, where Education Secretary Michael Gove‘s plans for an English Baccalaureate have not met with universal acclaim. One London teacher decided to respond by making this short but powerful video, which tells the story of Kidb, and of all the kids we write off if our definition of education, or intelligence, or literacy, becomes too narrow to fit everyone in, and if the pursuit of better test scores takes precedence over the development of better people.