Put “reading wr” into Google, and before you’ve completed typing the word “writing”, ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic’ appears in the top five most popular searches. Also known as ‘the three Rs’, the expression ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ was a great favourite with the Victorians. Within the English school system it has been shorthand for the basic essentials of education. But all is not quite as it seems, not least as it is obvious to a competent six year old that only one word of the ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ actually begins with the letter ‘R’!
One suggestion for the derivation of this concise gem was put forward by the late Professor Bruce Archer following some research into design practice. He proposed that it evolved from a similar expression commonly used in the eighteenth century. The three Rs then were considered to be ‘reading, reckoning and wroughting’. This was where reckoning was the usual term for mental arithmetic and wroughting was the word used for making.
The value of making, physically creating with one’s hands, was considered of more value in the past than it is in our ‘cerebral’ contemporary times. The process of forming and fashioning in a material way was about acquiring skills but also at the same time it was seen as a means to learn about culture. For fortunate folk of the eighteenth century educating their children was not simply an education in how to make a living, but how to live a cultured life.
Then, along came the Victorians with ‘The Factory Act’ of 1833, that imposed a duty on employers to provide half‐time education for employees under 13 and then ‘The Education Act’ of 1870 which aimed to provide education up to the age of ten on a national scale. Here is the opening statement made on 25th July 1870 by Earl de Grey and Ripon when introducing the Elementary Education Bill, second reading.
EARL DE GREY AND RIPON
My Lords, it is a satisfaction to me, and a circumstance which will very much shorten the observations it is my duty to make, that in moving the second reading of a Bill, the object of which is to establish a system of national education throughout England and Wales, I need not, in the present political and social position of the country, detain your Lordships by any arguments as to the importance of the spread of education, or as to the advantage to be derived not merely by those immediately affected, but by every class in the community from the establishment, as speedily as possible, of a system by which the means of elementary education may reach every home, and be brought within the reach of every child in the country.
There is absolutely no doubt that mass education was a positive development, but it was mostly the rote learning of the ‘Gradgrind’ type and the ‘3Rs’ were most definitely reading, writing and arithmetic with wroughting considered manual work eventually confined to the world of the apprentice. A contemporary version of learning through wroughting is this submarine pictured below. It is a replica of the Victorian original built by trainees.
Since the Victorians the value of art and craft and learning through wroughting has gone in and out of fashion with educationalists. The famous Maria Montessori was a great believer in learning through doing and considered that it was essential for nursery aged children to learn through physical activity and hands on pursuits.
Earlier this year, for the Crafts Book Club, the value of including art and crafts and making within an educational system was debated as part of an intriguing discussion on craft. The interview with Sir Christopher Frayling (below) was recorded following the recent launch of a paperback version of his 2011 book ‘On Craftsmanship: Towards a New Bauhaus’ .
And, if the book and/or the interview are too long here’s a link to a pithy summary article penned by Frayling setting out his eminently valuable views.
As I have been writing this post I have reconsidered the 3Rs in the light of computers and Google, and think that perhaps for the 21st century we should instead have the 3Cs, Comprehending, Coding and Creating!