February 19, 2003
Great Schools: The Bauhaus

I've recently bought one of these digital box things, that you attach to your television. They cost £100 or so, and beyond that, nothing more. You get your regular free TV channels, plus a few more. (I also get much better TV reception.) Blah blah, go to my culture blog and wait, if you want to know all that I think about this. As far as BEdBlog is concerned, tonight I'm watching a programme being presented by Robert Hughes, that jowly old Australian who wrote The Shock of the New, and who also did that as a TV show. The show tonight is about the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and mention was inevitably made of the Bauhaus, the German design and architecture school which flourished briefly between the end of the First World War and the rise of Hitler, where Mies taught for a time.

I hereby nominate the Bauhaus as the most influential educational institution of the twentieth century. Can anyone else better that? Stanford University maybe? That ghastly place in Russia where they trained Third World despots?

Not everything that the Bauhaus unleashed worked well. The Modern Movement in Architecture was a very mixed picture indeed. But if the Bauhaus' outdoor impact took many decades to work its way through catastrophe to something like mass popularity (which is the status of the best high-tech architectural modernism of today), its impact indoors has been much more definitely benign. Simply, the Bauhaus people invented the modern interior.

"Education" is a word that notoriously mutates into propaganda, and god am I sick of hearing some mediocrity on the TV tell the camera that "the public must be educated" into behaving the way the mediocrity wants them to behave, and buy what the mediocrity wants them to buy, instead of behaving in the way that and buy what it is inclined to. Nevertheless, the relationship between education and what is now called "indoctrination" is extremely intimate. I mean, the second of those two words gives it away.

Education can mean that which prepares you for the world as it is, or is going to be. That's mostly the sense in which I have been writing about it here. In the Bauhaus we observe education as a self-conscious and in this case also a stunningly successful attempt to change the world, by unleashing upon it a generation of art and design practitioners, and, in the absence of commissions, art and design propagandists.

And before all you right wing buffers deluge me with anti-modernistic abuse-comments (well, go ahead and indulge yourselves if you want to) be aware that I regard the Bauhaus as, on balance, a huge success. By which I mean not just that it did what it was trying to do, but that I'm glad about it. Again, see my Culture Blog in the years to come for the detailed reasons, but it comes down to this: the Bauhaus resulted in, above all, a lot of designs. And in the age of mass production, good designs can be kept and multiplied, and the bad designs can be dumped. True, it is proving very wearisome to shake ourselves free of badly designed big buildings. These are seldom mass produced over a longish period and cannot be quietly "discontinued" when they fail – they have to be blown up. Plus the politics was pretty ghastly, I do agree. But domestic furniture, kettles, anglepoise lamps, modern electrical toys (such as digital TV attachments), regular toy-type toys, tupperware, etc. etc etc. – just look around your kitchen and your living room, it's all Bauhaus Bauhaus Bauhaus. These guys invented – or maybe I mean discovered – all of that. This was a massive success and it will last.

And the social process that took it out of the individual heads where it was first imagined and turned it into a mass experience for us all was: education.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 PM
Category: Higher educationHistory