A Return to Critical Thinking

Austin Williams | 7 May 2010

This November will see the inaugural Winter School in London, organised by Mantownhuman to promote critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake in architectural education. Here, one of the School’s founders, Austin Williams, explains the inspiration behind the event. 

Over the last 10 years or so, higher education has come to be seen as a mere route to a job, rather than a worthy thing in itself. Indeed, education for education’s sake was famously described by a previous education secretary, Charles Clarke, as ‘a bit dodgy’ so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which controls the university sector, doesn’t even deign to mention universities in its title. Peter Mandelson, who headed up this super-ministry, insisted that if universities ‘clearly defined (their) objectives and outcomes’ then why should anyone worry if a degree course lasts just two years instead of three. After all, as far as he is concerned, higher education is all about fast-tracking students into the workforce as quickly as possible and saving a few bob on education in the process.

The fact that there are hardly any jobs to go to is a moot point, because the collapse of the education sector goes much deeper than just the pragmatic philistinism of a few ministers or their need to make massive public sector cuts look progressive. What has happened in education in recent years has been the collapse in a belief in education, per se. Universities in particular have lowered their own critical faculties and allowed their establishments to be colonised by social policy objectives to the detriment of meaningful knowledge.

The effects of today’s doctrinaire approach to education has resulted in the degradation of students’ expectations and the failure of the academy to defend knowledge in, and for, itself. All of this means that education has forgotten that students are meant to question, criticise and think freely about the subject. Undoubtedly, ‘critical thinking’ still exists in higher education, but there are fewer opportunities to exercise it against a rising tide of unquestionable orthodoxies. As one academic has noted: ‘framing the debate around outcomes, targets and aims may both prescribe what is to be learned and proscribe what is not’. Architects often presume that since they straddle the fine line between art and science; between practical training and intellectual rigour, that this doesn’t affect them. Indeed, some architectural academics have been heard to mutter that they are pleased that the new Research Exercise Framework (REF) will force university departments to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their work and explain how their research affects society and policy. So while Classicists fret about how to make Ancient Greek relevant to understanding, say, the economy, architecture tutors are smugly confident about their centrality to contemporary social policy debates. For some, this is egalitarianism; old-school scholars shunted off their pedestals by relevant radicals.

The problem is that there is nothing radical about current architectural education. In fact, it is now so mainstream that it sounds like the environmental industry’s PR machine. From carbon rationing, building sustainable communities, climate adaptation, reducing travel, encouraging responsible design, prioritising localism, promoting recycling and minimising footprints, these design ‘ambitions’ are the press statements from the Department for Communities and Local Government. Nowadays, ‘good’ architecture is synonymous with its social policy outcomes. After all, ‘sustainable architecture’ is, almost by definition, better than ‘unsustainable architecture’.

Unfortunately, the same is being said of architecture schools, where ‘good’ departments are often those who flaunt their environmental credentials as opposed to irresponsible departments who concentrate on ‘pure’ subject knowledge. Undoubtedly, architecture has always had a social, moral, political dimension, but it was normally accepted that students would be allowed to find out what their views were for themselves, by exploring different avenues, thus challenging their worldview. Now, there is only one right answer.

A proscriptive approach to education is anathema to the centrality of scholarship: of intellectually stretching students. For this reason, Mantownhuman (Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture) is taking it upon itself to raise the questions that the academy fails to address. Supported by Blueprint, Mantownhuman is organising a Winter School in London. Over the course of a day and a half, participants will explore topics such as visionary architecture, social criticism, historical thinking, the nature of beauty, human creativity and the need for design autonomy, among other things. The Winter School aims to raise students’ critical and investigative faculties. It will reinforce the point that all that is needed for good architectural graduates is to teach architecture and help students to be questioning, engaging, active, challenging individuals, who can then make up their own minds. Once allowed to think for themselves, a new generation of innovative and imaginative architecture can flourish. The fact that the UK schools’ ministry has described certain educational outcomes as ‘non-negotiable’ ought to make students and tutors a bit more sceptical. For those that are, we look forward to seeing you in November

The Winter School’s Critical Subjects will be held at Kowalsky Gallery, London, EC1, 17-18 November. To attend,students must send in a short film, which will be judged by an international architectural advisory panel. For more information visit www.mantownhuman.org


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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