The values of John Ruskin and their application in teaching+learning today.

The following is an approximate transcript of the presentation at W**CHCRAFT conference 6–7 September 2018 at The School of Design, Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne organised by the UK Graphic Design Educators Network. From designer-makers to digital strategists let us share, explore and debate the #wchcraft inherent in the practice and #education of contemporary graphic #design.

This country has made me what I am today. Having lived here for nearly twenty-five years, I care deeply for it.

We are faced with ever-increasing challenges in Higher Education as we are being dictated to on how to conduct our work, to the extent of being told what is excellent research and what is not, what is excellent teaching and what is not and so on.

Since last year’s presentation on the subject, progress has been made in terms of discovering a range of works that discuss in depth the issues that I am researching in the most applicable way.

We have a short amount of time so this is what we are going to do:

I am going to show selected quotes from John Ruskin’s book The Elements of Drawing. As you read these quotes, I would like you to consider them through the values and criteria that have been imposed on our teaching and learning culture of the past twenty or so years:

[To the student]: “If you desire only […] to amuse yourself listlessly in listless hours, I cannot help you.”

“It is much easier to learn to draw well, than it is to learn to play well on any musical instrument; [however] it takes three or four years of practice, giving three or four hours a day, to acquire even ordinary command over the keys of a piano; and you must not think that a masterly command of your pencil, and the knowledge of what may be done with it, can be acquired without painstaking, or in a very short time.”

“Do not, think that you can learn drawing, any more than a new language, without some hard and disagreeable labour. But do not, on the other hand, if you are ready and willing to pay this price, fear that you may be unable to get on for want of special talent.”

[…] [If] you are ready to take a certain amount of pains, and to bear a little irksomeness and a few disappointments bravely, I can promise you that an hour’s practice a day for six months, or an hour’s practice every other day for twelve months, […] some hundred and fifty hours’ practice, will give you sufficient power of drawing whatever you want to draw.

“The kind of drawing which is taught, or supposed to be taught, in our schools, in a term or two, perhaps at the rate of an hour’s practice a week, is not drawing at all. It is only the performance of a few dexterous (not always even that) evolutions on paper with a black-lead pencil; profitless alike to performer and beholder, unless as a matter of vanity, and that the smallest possible vanity.”

“For I am nearly convinced, that when once we see keenly enough, there is very little difficulty in drawing what we see; but, even supposing that this difficulty be still great, I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.”

It is surely also a more important thing, for young people and unprofessional students, to know how to appreciate the art of others, than to gain much power in art themselves. Now the modes of sketching ordinarily taught are inconsistent with this power of judgment

The worst danger by far, to which a solitary student is exposed, is that of liking things that he should not. In these days of cheap illustration, the danger is always rather of your possessing too much than too little.

“The character of everything is best manifested by Contrast. Rest can only be enjoyed after labour; Sound to be heard clearly, must rise out of silence; Light is exhibited by darkness, darkness by Light; and so on in all things.”

Nineteenth and early twentieth-century texts have been virtually ostracised from reading and research and the main reason for this is that they demonstrate in the clearest and most succinct way possible the fact that we are regressing in many areas, crafts being one of the main ones.

As Neal Postman [1969] states in his prophetic book “Teaching as a subversive activity”, the situation in education today is like we are driving a multi-million-pound sports car screaming faster faster!!! while peering fixedly into the rear-view mirror.

Ruskin is talking about a meritocracy of teaching and learning, however, the predominant ideology in UK HE at the moment is that of mediocracy, due to having to abide by values of retention and recruitment.

It seems to me that we are possibly one of the very few areas of education that we are willing to teach candidates/students of design that have not fully done the background work, the foundational work required for them to qualify as fully fledged visual communication candidates.

We take what is good from Ruskin like a honey bee draws the nectar from the flowers to make honey, ignoring the excrement on the soil. If we are not inspired by values that we believe are way above our current state of being and doing, then we are bound to regress.

When major companies around the world are publicly stating that degrees are not what they are looking for in candidates, we must pay close attention. We must become aware that many of the elements in our current system are already obsolete especially when learning has degenerated into what we now call research and when their teaching has become mere instruction.

For me, the education pendulum is about to swing at full speed, from knowledge to craft/skills and craftsmanship. So let’s be honest with ourselves primarily, are we training or educating our students? We must listen to market forces whilst simultaneously prioritising the needs of the students before the orders we receive from the ministry.

In the UK, we cannot teach students in HE on twelve hours contact time a week, when in many counties around the world, students are receiving a minimum of forty hours. We cannot teach students in HE on the ideology of retention and recruitment. We cannot teach students in HE when many institutions do not have the budget to purchase pens and paper.

If we wish for our students to swim in the ocean, we cannot be teaching them in a tiny swimming pool. An investment in teaching crafts and abilities can be a way to futureproof our students. However, this kind of teaching takes many hours and it can be also resource heavy. It has always been cheaper to think than to do, in terms of edicational resources. From this perspective we must stop thinking of our HE institutions and colleges as profit-making machines. The greatest profit, is the betterment and education of our future generation. Since “9% of the UK’s GDP derives from the Creative Economy” what better are to invest for the long term?

I sincerely hope that we start acting on the findings that our research and best thinking has given us up to today, instead of just digging ourselves a deeper hole by focusing on creating more and more research that is never applied.

We must teach by upholding the values of mutual respect, transparency and accountability. These are the values that most of us here where taught by and they must be passed on to the next generation not by words, but by example.

Thank you!


The Arts are under severe attack: In a new analysis by Tes of Department for Education data the latest figures, for 2017, show that:

  • At key stage 3, less time is being spent teaching music (down by 11 per cent), art (down by 9 per cent) and drama (down by 7 per cent), compared with 2011. While at key stage 4, music is down 12 per cent, art is down 20 per cent and drama is down 26 per cent;
  • Languages, despite being in the English Baccalaureate, remain in trouble. There has been a rise in Spanish, with 32 per cent more time at key stage 4. But French is down 11 per cent and German down 22 per cent;
  • Design and technology has fallen precipitously, with 19 per cent fewer hours devoted in KS3 and 40 per cent fewer in KS4.

Fewer students studying Art related subjetcs at school means that we will be looking at a severe reduction in Arts related degrees in HE in the very near future.

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