I have been struck recently (and I use that term very loosely) by how the education debates in this country (the UK) seem to both miss the point, and go for an easy political solution that replicates past cleavages but ignores the unpolitical reality currently facing this country and to a greater extent to more global reality in which we find ourselves.
Commodification of Education
Having observed both the UK and the US education I find that there are positives and negatives in each, but that the biggest problem is the classification of education as a commodity that has value to its primary possessor and very little value beyond that. The labelling of education as a good mostly for employment purposes and not for the potential to open minds, to explore the world or to contribute in unquantifiable ways to a fuller integrative civil society is problematic. I understand that this classification allows for a more egalitarian perspective that attempts to overcome entrenched social strata/expectations. I think thats important. Very important. But, if we are going to attempt to see education in any other way than functional we have to accept that life, and society is just going to not be fair. Thats not to say that it shouldn’t be fair. Of course it should, and it is very easy for me to accept that it isn’t fair because I am one of the incredibly lucky and very very few people who aren’t getting screwed by the fact that things aren’t fair.
That being said, there are greater and lesser degrees of getting screwed and the people who are able to finish secondary school, or university without having to dodge bullets, or leave their homes because of natural or man-made disasters are also doing pretty well. I think if you make it to 18 and have some choices in life you should recognise that you too are pretty lucky. I think there are a lot of people who don’t make it to age 5, or by 18 have had some pretty horrific experiences well beyond home-leaving so all of this discussion needs to be bracketed by that pretty stark reality. (sorry bit of a side rant there, should have made clear that as we get going there might be side notes to let you know more clearly the basics of where I come from)
So, where were we? Right, social strata and education. There are some people who are lucky enough that their parents are able and willing to support them studying things and completing degrees that are not strictly useful. Often they have no vocational outlet (and I include things like law, medicine, engineering in vocations). That is to say that there is no specific job waiting at the end for which they have gained the specific skills to fulfil.
There have been, and continue to be those for whom a specific scholarship or fellowship is available because they are just too obviously smart to put their brains to a specific task, but need to be free to pursue academic aims for which we may not yet understand the value. For a time, as a society, we had enough surplus (again, largely because we were ignoring those less fortunate than us who were not within close geographical proximity) that collectively we could endow a greater proportion of people who were not off the charts smart but at least relatively clever to pursue not strictly functional educational ends. Unfortunately as the geo-political reality changes our ability to command a large part of the super structure will decrease and the numbers of bright-but-not-genii who are publicly supported to pursue higher education will necessarily drop as well.
This does not HAVE to be a bad thing. It could be, but it is contingent on how it is done. Fewer people in higher education does not have to mean worse education. I heard a very few voices several months ago talking about the ways education could change to accommodate young people gaining the skills they need without incurring large debt to themselves or to the public. Industries could make better use of apprenticeships- teaching young people specific skill sets and knowledge bases while paying them, albeit a small salary, but a small salary is still better than a debt. This would be possible in a number of skill based fields from technology to service industries. There are a number of incredibly important jobs that are better learnt by doing than studying in a classroom and then learning by doing afterwards anyway. I had a friend who completed a general degree in English at St Andrews, spending 4 years and incurring huge debt for both him and his parents. After graduating he returned home and got the exact same job he had prior to leaving for university. After a few months he was able to start as a cash register person in a book shop and worked his way up to becoming a book buyer. I could be wrong, as I am not the people involved, but it seems from the outside, in this instance, that working his way up from the inside and demonstrating that he kept up with the current book market had as much to do with the position he now occupies as the piece of paper that said he did a mediocre degree in which he read a lot of books he could have read anyway. Wow. That was much harsher than I meant it to be, and I could edit it, but I am trying to be true to the stream of consciousness writing style I’m trying to adopt here.
I think its wonderful he was able to study english, to have intelligent people explaining things to him that he might not be able to figure out on his own, to have lecturers and tutors share insights gleaned from generations of intelligent people thinking about these same texts and their authors and the contexts in which they were written. All people should be able to benefit from that knowledge, and when I say benefit I mean both have access and have the personal resources to understand it. But, if we return to the original premise of this discussion the point was the commodification and the value of the possessor of a degree. The point in this instance was that the piece of paper, the ‘education’ he received from a place of higher learning was not as useful to his future employment as a keen interest in the Guardian’s book review and a quick mind that was interested in the world. In this instance education had personal benefit to him, and will probably help him in choosing good books to stock and recommend, but that he paid a lot of money (and his parents as well) to get a job that he most likely could have gotten anyway and that all that debt did not enhance his earning potential as much as promised.
A question then becomes: what is the value to seeing education in these terms? (as in, who does it serve to do so?)
A question I will continue to answer tomorrow. I have just realised that if I try to completely address each topic as much as I want to all at the same time I will be here writing for a very long time and you are likely to get bored/ overwhelmed. So, I’ll try and let you know where I’m going next. Tomorrow I want to look at/ talk about why I think we are all a little part of the colluding to see education in these terms as it serves us all. I know that most of you have just gone ‘say wha?’ in a cliched 1990’s sitcom sort of way, some because you think ‘I’m not the straw-man bad guy everyone paints me as?’ and some because you think ‘I’m totally against the spread of capitalism to a last bastion of common sense and civil society’ but I challenge you, I think we are all a part of the collusion that leads to the position we are at. So, more tomorrow on that (and hopefully we can start some conversation going/ disagreement having)!
Below are my current thoughts on where this is eventually headed. They seem a little cryptic or a little cliche right now, but I promise, it will be interesting if you stick with me.
The LSE effect (or the inevitable results of the commodification of education)
‘Results’ (what does it mean that everyone is ‘doing better’ than they have in the past?)
‘Class’ (How is our education system a microcosm of an entrenched class system? I want to look at this both in terms of how its happened, but also how its informed our expectations and how it is these expectations, bound up with huge political implications, that are part of the root of our problem now.)
After that we may move on from education and actually dive into politics, but I may be all about theory then, or some of you may want to know more about where I’m coming from, so we will have to see.