Sennett blasts “elitism” in education 09.07.08

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words Johanna Agerman and William Wiles

British vocational education is a failure, a situation that will have serious implications for the creative industries in the future, a panel headed by Richard Sennett has warned. Sennett was speaking with Grayson Perry, Ian Bostridge and Marina Warner in a debate on the nature of craft at the opening of the London Literature Festival on 5 July.

Sennett’s book The Craftsman, released earlier this year (icon 060), argues that perfecting skills and doing a job well is a need that we all share, and the fact that contemporary society encourages us to spend less time on these pursuits can be seen as the basis for social ill. In the debate, the LSE professor of sociology warned that British society spends too much time rewarding the efforts of a tiny minority of “creatives” and neglects to offer training in craft skills to a broader segment of society. He attacked the Blairite doctrine of meritocracy as being inherently elitist, saying that while it was all very well to reward the best, that approach left the majority with nothing.

He was supported in his argument by fellow panellist, artist Grayson Perry, who lambasted “That’ll do Britain” for its “infantile” culture of instant gratification and elevation of the quick and easy over the long, slow and difficult. He likened crafts to “adulthood” over the more “childish” conceptual art which, he said, focused solely on quick ideas, and had no “afterlife of beauty”.

Tenor Ian Bostridge spoke up for instant gratification in terms of the possibilities it has given the amateur. More people now have access to means of expressing themselves creatively, for example through digital cameras and the internet. For Marina Warner, the internet presents a wealth of possibilities to gain knowledge but it has “an inbuilt sensory deprivation”: it is “weightless” knowledge that can’t be smelled or held in the hands.

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