Here’s Britten but where’s Brunel?

It’s been almost 50 years since the scientist and novelist CP Snow gave his famous ‘Two Cultures’ lecture, when he spoke about the widening and unbridgeable gulf between the arts and science establishment in the UK. With the government’s announcement that all schoolchildren in

Englandare to get five hours a week of access to ‘quality culture’, anyone concerned with technology could be forgiven for wondering whether anyone has noticed they exist.

That’s not to do down the importance of culture, of course. Who could doubt that kids will benefit from trips to the theatre and galleries, music lessons and visits from musicians and novelists? All absolutely invaluable in helping to develop well-rounded individuals, although cynics might wonder, first, whether all those aren’t already provided in the National Curriculum; and second, where notoriously hard-pressed teachers are going to conjure those extra five hours from.

But that’s beside the point. While the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is determinedly shoe-horning its agenda into schools — and quite right too, that’s what it’s there for — we can’t help noticing here that generation after generation of schoolkids still have no idea what engineering is about and what engineers do, even after seven years of secondary education.

Isn’t it about time that somebody tackled this? While science education has been shaken up more often than the champagne at a Grand Prix, there still seems to be no effort to show children how creativity and science can combine to affect the real world. How can it be right that most 16-year-olds think that an engineer is someone who fixes the washing machine? How can we expect students half-way through their (pure science) A-levels to apply for engineering courses, to supply that next generation of engineers which we’re all told is still vital to the UK’s future competitiveness, if nobody’s told them what engineering is?

So if you’re going to be inviting experts into schools and taking the students out to see places of interest, let’s put engineers onto the list. Take them to the Diamond Synchrotron and JET, the Thames Barrier and the ForthBridge. Tell them about how they were made and why they’re important. And while we’re worrying about national identity and culture, let’s not forget that architecture, infrastructure and the achievements of technologists and engineers are just as much a part of ‘quality culture’ as William Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor