Are academics the real softies?

This week I’m going to try very hard not to mention that nice Mr G. But of course it’s just possible I might not succeed.

I want to explore what is actually meant by the use of the term ‘soft-subjects’, which appears frequently in news items about education, and which I continue to find offensive. Presumably the intended, and perceived, implication is that soft subjects are somehow easier to consume and digest, and less demanding and challenging. It makes us think of Mr Softee ice cream, soft-rock, and maybe even soft matter, which apparently has a ‘low resistance to external force’. The phrase is nearly always exemplified as being Media Studies or Sports Management, but never defined or explained. So what are the other soft subjects, and what makes them soft?

According to Cambridge University, ‘soft’ A levels include those such as Health and Social Care, Travel and Tourism, Business Studies, ICT and Design and Technology, Drama, PE, Art, Accounting, Music Technology, Law and Psychology. So the phrase appears to derived from the list of subjects deemed unacceptable for entry to the top academic universities. And, one can’t help observe, subjects that are probably more likely to lead to future employment. Meanwhile the so-called ‘hard’ subjects tend to require the memorising of a large body of knowledge and the systematic study of a range of established and accepted concepts, rather than the development of thinking and learning skills or of any personal development.

All this continues to perpetuate the myth that academic study is difficult while ‘practical’ work is easy. But academic study is relatively easy for those who are academically able, and only challenging for those who are not. And in my time I’ve attempted to teach some academically very able students who have found practical work to be extremely demanding, and the approach to creative, open-ended problem-solving to be both beyond them, and indeed quite intolerable.

As far as I’m concerned, those income-guaranteed academic university professors who spend their time cross-referencing what others have said to produce a often largely incomprehensible paper that hardly anyone else will ever read, and without any of the risk-taking, team-working, delivery deadlines of commercial pressures of the outside world, must be considered to be leading a truly ‘soft’ way of life. It may require some ‘deep thought’, but knowledge and understanding without practical action and effective communication  is of little value.

But of course all Beano readers already know the difference between hard and soft. In my day it was quite clear exactly what a ‘softy’ was. He was called Walter, and appeared each week alongside Dennis the Menace. He is portrayed as a typical “geek”, wearing a blue schoolboy’s shirt and has glasses and slicked-back hair. He does well in school and is adored by his teachers and parents, and his favourite bedtime story is doubtless an encyclopedia.

So who is the biggest softie of them all then? Now who is this a photo of in his younger days….?

And, it seems, Mr G’s favourite book was indeed – an encyclopedia…

‘When he was appointed education secretary in May his proud parents told local journalist Kris Gilmartin in their home town of Aberdeen that their son used to “carry an encyclopaedia home from school with him”. When he finished his schoolwork ahead of other pupils, instead of bunking off or passing notes, he would open the encyclopaedia where he had last left off.’

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