Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On Education

"I never learnt anything useful at school that helped me at work - I don't really see the point of it." You hear people say this a lot. I suspect they're a vociferous minority but it is, nonetheless, a fairly constant refrain. I've heard it from people of my own generation, I've heard it from my parent's generation, and you hear it from kids today just coming out of the education system. So, even though I've not experienced any education outside of my own, you can sort of make it a sweeping truism that this statement has run through the generations.

I don't actually buy in to this view myself. I can remember things I learnt at school, and whilst I may not apply them much directly to my work, I certainly remember them and I use them in many other situations. Studying Shakespeare taught me not to be intimidated by something I did not instantly understand. It taught me an appreciation, albeit perhaps not a love for literature, and that with a certain amount of perseverance, if you encounter initial confusion stick at it and it might sometimes develop into ultimate enlightenment. It also helped, that once you understood it, you realised he was a helluva a storyteller as well. The maths I did - in pre-calculator days - gave me a certain agility for mental arithmetic - not just the dartboard variety - that I still use on a daily basic. History and geography gave me a perspective on the world today and an appreciation of my surroundings. Physics and chemistry taught me you can reduce complex ideas and concepts to very fundamental levels and apply them to things you see happening every day. And the French (and a dose of German) I learnt taught me not only how to get by in a French restaurant, but also the similarities between languages, meaning you could make an educated guess at words in lots of other languages and have a fair stab at knowing what they meant.

But all these things I learnt (one of which was never to start a sentence with "But" or "And") can often described as fairly soft skills. They're pretty abstract although I would also say, pretty useful. School didn't teach me how to process insurance claims which is what I did for a while. It didn't help me diagnose (and sometimes fix) faults in cars which is another stalled career move. And it didn't help me a jot in IT which what I do now. A potential career in the computer industry was barely conceived, let alone taught, back in the 70s when I was at school.

We've just had the annual TV event of witnessing 16 and 18 year-olds joyously jumping up and down (always in groups of three, usually two white girls and one other girl of an ethnic background I notice) celebrating their record-breaking GCSE or 'A' Level results. This is usually played off with somebody from the CBI saying kids coming out of the system have never been more poorly educated in the basic skills. Is it true? I don't know. Are exams getting easier and the ability to pass them almost a formality for the averagely intelligent? Probably.

We now hear schools teach increasingly abstract subjects. Environmentalism, shot through the prism of Al Gore, is now on the curriculum. Citizenship is a subject that can be learnt and studied. Personal finance lessons. The latest thing I heard is schools are going to indoctrinate us white folks about the collective guilt we must feel for slavery.

What I'm sort of getting at here is what does education, certainly up to the end of secondary school, really prepare you for? It still doesn't teach you to dig holes in the ground and fix broken pipes for the gas board. It doesn't teach you how to speculate on futures in The City. It doesn't teach you how to sell used cars. Basic education is still a fairly abstract concept that's tied up not only in what you learn, but also how you learn it and who you learn it from and it should also imbue in you a desire to learn more.

I was going to finish this piece of flim by speculating that schools were no longer places of education but were merely holding pens where increasingly semi-feral and spoilt children could be kept whilst their parents went out to work. I wanted to say it's where teachers plough through an increasingly bizarre and silly subject list. Damn me though, I think I've talked myself out of it. Sure you can make snap judgements based on what you see in the press about where our schools are going but I think the only thing I can conclude is that all basic education is mostly abstract. It was, and it still is. It happened to us and it's still happening now. It's not meant to prepare you for work. What you end up doing at work is too big a subject to learn. Even further education doesn't really prepare you for work. It just teaches you to go beyond the stage of absorbing facts, and starts encouraging you to move them around a bit, and then perhaps drawing your own conclusions. It's only a start.


sabrina said...

I think those who said they hardly leanrt anything at school were the ones who were busy picking their noses at the back of the class! :p

King of Scurf said...

Hi Saby: I grew up in a mining area in the North of England. The nosepickers were encouraged as it was thought it gave them useful excavation skills.