Stephen Heller writes, in response to Tom’s comment quoted below on the value of GD courses:
“So here’s another proposal for an experimental education approach cobbled together from some existing programs (not the least of which was the Bauhaus).
How about a school that is a design firm? Start with a year of basic training, then put the students to work. Have them spend the next three years advancing from novice, to apprentice, to assistant, to junior, to senior designer. And along the way, they do real work for profits, non-profits, the marketplace in general, etc. Maybe something valuable will arise. This can be supplemented by a slew of ‘electives.'”
Of course what he’s suggesting is what we used to have – apprenticeships. Good old fashioned, vocational, on-the-job training. And I think he’s right – so long as the student definitely wants to be a designer (if after a few years they think “this isn’t for me” they’re screwed, of course). The problem is, design firms, and non-design firms who employ designers (which is how I started) are not prepared to train their employees anymore, and instead expect universities to produce ready-made designers who can get to work straight away.
But that’s not what higher education is for. Nobody really benefits from the sort of narrow vocational focus that many (though not all) advocate. The skills focus results in people who are trained to do whatever was current when the curriculum was written (or more likely when the teachers were last in industry), but does not produce the thinking skills or the contextual knowledge to allow them to adapt or, even more importantly, innovate.
(My first published piece on education, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, described courses like this as developing “bottled skills with sell-by dates” – often when the graduate gets into industry their skills are past their sell-by date and that leads to industry saying educators aren’t serving their needs, but ironically it is because they are folowing slavishly the changing whims of industry that the situation arises, like trying to catch a shadow.)
Stephen Heller’s demand for five year courses is similar to a current (but muffled) discussion in the UK, interestingly from a fine art perspective. This suggestion is that we should stop looking at undergraduate degrees as the finishing point, and instead look at masters degrees (M-level) as where students begin to specialise. It’s what happens in other disciplines, so why not art and design?
So a student on a fine art degree studies a broad range of subjects to develop skills, knowledge and understanding (SKU) that will serve them well no matter what they do afterwards – they could be a teacher, a politician, a solicitor, whatever. But if they want to practice as an artist then a masters programme should be on offer that allows them to develop, to focus, their SKU, in the same way that if they wanted to be a teacher they would do a M-level qualification (CertEd) or, if they wanted to be a lawyer, an LLB M-level conversion.
Sadly, however, whereas graduates in most disciplines can go on to study a further year in their chosen field, irrespective of what their first degree is in, in the UK art and design graduates tend to find themselves being turned down because their degrees are not broad enough or academic enough. I have known several talented students be turned down for postgraduate courses in teaching for this very reason.
So yes, I would agree with Heller, but with Tom Gleason’s insights to the fore, that we need to develop an understanding that a three year bachelor’s programme is not training, but preparation, and that we need to offer M-level programmes (the fifth year). But only if we ensure that our graduates are so well served by the first three/four years that they can pick and choose their ultimate discipline.