On the rotten fallacy of subject hierarchy

“What an unusual combination”, say the majority on finding out what I teach.  Though sometimes I ask, never do they justify their surprise – I suspect because it’s a bit rude to say “but music’s so easy, and maths is for clever people“.

Subject snobbery is a type of prejudice that particularly irks me, probably because I teach at opposite ends of the very well entrenched (and deepening, I’ve no doubt) subject hierarchy.  Through experience, I have come to realise that the ill effects of our rotten communal outlook on subject-worth are by no means exclusively borne by subjects at the bottom of the ladder: I have certainly seen a lot of kids refusing to do any work in music lessons because ‘there’s no point in it’, but I have seen far more tantrums and tears in maths lessons because  ‘I’m a failure’ with no life prospects (the term ‘life prospects’ being more or less interchangeable with ‘a grade C in GCSE maths’ in current educational thought).


Yet we rarely bother to challenge the perspectives of students, parents, colleagues or friends who openly subject-rank, perhaps because we don’t know how.  Or perhaps because most of us, if we’re honest, buy into it a little.  Some of my colleagues in the creative arts do make an effort, giving seemingly solid arguments for our subjects’ importance that warrant them a much higher place in the hierarchy: “creativity is the most valued asset in [insert name of high-economic worth industry]”, “the arts are worth £84 billion per year to our economy” or, my personal (least) favourite, “music is maths; music is literacy, music is a language, etc.”.  But, much like the concept of ‘social mobility’ (don’t get me started), these arguments will never be effective because they only serve to strengthen the notion of hierarchy in the first place.

Implicit in any argument for arts education as an assistant to developing employability is an acceptance of the axiom that the primary function of our education system is economic.  Surely it is not the economic worth of arts education which should be in dispute, but the worth of an exclusively economic outlook in the first place.  I understand the potential value of an education system that supplies skilled workers in proportions that markets demand, but I also see rather a lot of value in showing young people more direct routes to happiness, such as upholding values of universal respect and equality, for example.

My view is that dividing school subjects, and thereby the teachers and students who work within those subjects, into groups which we suppose are of intrinsically varied value is fundamentally wrong.  This is what needs tackling, not by arguing for the underdog subjects on individual bases, but firstly by reaching genuine consensus in and beyond the teaching profession that, in absolute terms, learning anything at secondary level is as worthwhile as learning anything else.  Alas, so long as economists operate politicians who operate teachers, we’re simply not going to manage that.

So what can we do?  It’s pretty simple, actually: just ignore EBacc and Progress 8 and Attainment 8 and whatever other million pound documents the DfE have released whilst I’ve been typing this.  If schools united in disdain for such deliberately divisive initiatives and acted together against them, they would effectively cease to exist as data failed to conform sufficiently to build the much-hated-anyway league tables.  The path would be clear for us to be able to say with honesty and confidence to our students and children: “you’re good at this, she’s good at that, and you’re both as good as each other”.

Oh, yeah, none of us has the balls.  Carry on, then.

5 thoughts on “On the rotten fallacy of subject hierarchy

  1. I’m biased, but I’m very pleased to see that “coding” is starting to be actively taught in schools. Of course, given modern markets requirements, “coding” is a very marketable skill. However, the real reason I’m happy to see it included is entirely different.

    As you highlight, different subjects taught in schools carry different stigmas and perceived value. However the value of any education arguably isn’t really measured by what you learn, but your ability to learn at the end of it. This is where I would recite phrases such as “life long learning” at nauseam if I could be bothered.

    The distinction between academic subjects, and creative can clearly be demonstrated by the method used to teach them. Academic favours wrote memorisation or similar techniques, whereas creative pursuits favour discovery (excuse the large sweeping statement).

    However, programming at an interesting cross-section, because there are both hard and fast rules that must be taught in the traditional sense, but also the opportunity for creativity as an individual discovers what works, what doesn’t and what might allow for a more elegant solution.

    Learning to code teaches you how to think, how to reason and how to structure your thoughts. That’s all code is really, a black and white manifestation of a thought process, blinking away on the screen, in a format that someone else (or a computer) can interpret. I know I’m not alone in finding that learning to program has “unlocked” my brain to a degree, and I’m far more able to learn both new, academic subjects, but am also far more creative and willing to experiment in a bid to “discover” the truth of something, rather than be taught it.

    So perhaps the way we circumvent the subject snobbery is circumvent the entire thing? Instead of our education system focussing on what a student’s learnt (English: A – you learnt a lot. Chemistry: E – not so much!) why not focus on how able a student is to learn new things in the future? We all know that school is nothing like the real world anyway, so a young workforce able to pick up something new and produce results quickly is surely far more valuable to our economy at large?

    Alas, I think such a mentality has got the same chance as one that dismisses league tables and subject-snobbery. 😉


    1. Learning to code has helped you structure your thought and therefore rubbed off on your seemingly separate intellectual pursuits (though they’re not really ‘separate’, and that’s why). However, I feel exactly the same about music, and many, if not most, people probably feel the same about their respective specialisms. School subjects are the artificial result of a man-made dissection of the infinitely large collection of potential experiences that we class at ‘learning’ (which is actually just doing anything). I think you can get to the kind of personal development you’re talking about via any number of routes that could be called Programming, Land Economy, Neurophysics, Burger-Flippery 101, etc.

      You should be more optimistic about the uptake of your idea about ‘learning to learn’ – that really is at the heart of a lot of educational theory and very strongly believed by many in The System. The problem is, as you rightly identify, putting it into practise whilst juggling our obsession with assessment of prior learning (which I’d argue does have a practical place, too).

      I feel that the mutual conclusion you and I have come to is just not to have subjects at all, which is also something much talked about at the moment but unlikely to happen here in the near future, at least at secondary level. I like it, though.

      One more thing: I’d like it recorded that I did not excuse that sweeping statement!


  2. So how much is all this theoretical “happiness” and “equality” stuff going to cost? And what’s my ROI?… basically a question I was asked in front of an audience of 400 last year. Think I just told him to retire, or something.

    I also regularly notice at work that you can tell people stuff about sustainability and wellbeing and wotnot that sounds pretty convincing but they remain staring out the window, then the moment you say “and it’ll cost a gazillion pounds and save us thrupence and half a d”, the lights switch on. It’s as though people can’t comprehend anything unless it has a pound sign at the start of it.

    I can think of two main ways to approach this problem of money being the only thing that anybody listens to: put EVERYTHING in financial terms, or simply value social, environmental, emotional, etc. things in their own right. Henney refers to a “triple bottom line” of economy, society and environment. Maybe if there were clear ways to measure (or even estimate) such things, people would be more open to sacrificing short term profit for a stable society? Like the colour schemes on food… “Jesus, this thing’s all the reds, think I’ll spend an extra 5p and save myself from a heart attack”. So we need an SI unit for happiness.

    I think your analogy of the futility of trying to justify the merits of creative subjects could be translated into the futility of trying to calculate the economic impact of happiness, perhaps…. I may have just imprinted my own thoughts on your very well written article, but hey ho; blogs are for the authors benefit so comments should be too, right? 😉 x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, absolutely. They are, I think, one and the same silly situation (the imperative to measure the economic effects of creativity in the curriculum and of the rather larger topic of collective happiness). I think your point on measurability is prescient, and I see it in a lot of other areas of life and work, too. I wonder if we still suffer from a post-enlightenment obsession with empiricism – a mode of communal operation that only works if we ignore the stuff in life that’s hard to quantify, else distort it clumsily into quantifiable data.

      Your SI unit sounds like a practical compromise that might win over the number-crunchers, but it’s just never going to work meaningfully. Happiness is a wonderful thing precisely because it can’t be quantified and so are the arts!

      Liked by 1 person

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