Yesterday’s post on measures of success in education prompted some interesting comments, not least from Neo and Scoop, who both made the point, as did Annie, that educational qualifications are not all there is to life – we need people with practical skills. I doubt anyone whose electricity has failed or whose drains are blocked would argue with that, and if the gravaman of the comments was that sometimes we focus too narrowly on a certain type of academic education, there would, I suspect, be quite a bit of nodding. But I wonder how accurate that perception now is? When I look at the range of things people can study at university, it is now pretty diverse. Critics concentrate on supposed easy options like Women’s Studies and Media Studies (though as anyone who has done courses in either would attest, there is nothing easy about them) but miss out on things like physiotherapy and sports rehabilitation, not to mention courses to do with computing and law, all of which, when I began my academic career, were not options pursued at many universities, and which, when they were introduced, encountered a certain sort of snobbery as to whether they were really things people ought to do at university? Well, they are, and they are, so to say.
Universities were not founded by the Church and supported by Monarchs and rich nobles because any of these funders thought education for its own sake was a good thing, they were funded to provide the Church and the Monarch with educated men who could help run their institutions. We live in very complex societies which need a diversity of skills, and universities provide more by way of teaching than those who have not looked at them for some time might suppose. But they are not the be all and end all of life. It is wrong to give young people the idea that they are some kind of failure if they don’t go to university. Some people are not ready for it at 18, others never will be. I remain the only one in my birth family to have gone to university, but my siblings never felt a failure, because we did not come from the sort of family who expected to go to university; in that sense I was the odd one out, and to her dying day, my dear mother never understood why, as she put it I ‘could not read books somewhere nearer home’.
We hear much of ‘diversity’, but if we really understood the word we would not apply it so narrowly to a set of politically-correct objectives; indeed, at University nowadays even in its narrow sense, we might be asking why fewer and fewer young men are going there, and why young men do worse at school than young women. Education ought to be about helping young people to become the best they can become, and if that means the best electrician, the best plumber or the best nuclear physicist, then our education systems have to try to provide that. That’s why teaching remains a vocation. In many years in education I’ve found young people remarkably forgiving of my foibles, and those of my colleagues, but there is one thing they won’t forgive – laziness and lack of interest. You can’t fake sincerity as a teacher, and the kids notice if you try.
As education comes to see itself more and more as some sort of business (at a recent meeting an external consultant used that word 15 times in a presentation of half an hour), and as those who manage it set targets, they need to bear in mind that there are many things you cannot measure, and that good teachers, whilst they can be made better ones by training, cannot be made into good teachers by it. We need, I think, to value our teachers, they are men and women who devote their lives to helping others to outdistance them – and then smile at the result.
My experience with young folk out of college in the US shows that the more prestigious the college the more monolithic is the ideology and thinking intilled in these individuals. I don’t know the answer to why that is unless it is an actual intitutional problem that is guided in their hiring practices of the professors within their institutions. Yet, the trade schoos and junion colleges and a few good state colleges and universities seems to churn out more individualistic though among their graduates.
Do you see anything similar in the UK?
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No, I haven’t seen that here at all.
I’m not involved in education as a provider so these may be random thoughts. The problem with a wide curriculum is that it academicises essentially practical subjects and deters essentially practical people from pursuing them. What, I think, a university is best at doing is teaching people how to think in abstract terms a skill which only appeals to few people. The skill can be learnt through a fairly narrow curriculum and once acquired can be used in a huge variety of settings. It is also a leadership skill.
In its original context universities ran alongside Guilds and the Church so that a variety of different educational methods were used to provide the diverse skills mix which the then society required. By focussing attention on a sole provider and a singular method we stifle diversity when measured by personality type while increasing it by sex, race etc etc. If we downsized universities by about 90% and upsized non-academic providers then we might have a system that met the needs of society and catered for the different kinds of people we have, measuring them as people instead of members of identity groups.
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I think that misses out the diversity offered by universities nowdays. It is hard to see what non-academic providers would provide in many areas that is not already provided by universities. If we take nursing for example, I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to be cared for by one who knew what she was doing with complicated drugs and procedure than by one who was well-meaning but hadn’t a clue.
I qualified as a nurse under the system which existed prior to college based training. I think it produced good results. Students spent most of their time as integrated (and paid) members of the workforce. Blocs of clinical placement were book-ended by classroom based periods of preparation and consolidation respectively. One consequence of this was that the transition from student to Staff Nurse was relatively painless.
By contrast today’s system produces nurses whose theoretical grasp exceeds their practical skills by a wide margin. Newly qualified nurses face a steep learning curve which breaks an awful lot of them. Many others stay as much as possible in their comfort zones doing paperwork leaving the practical work to unqualified staff. Lots of excellent nurses do emerge but that’s despite not because of the training system. Lots of those who qualified under the old system and are still around are perfectly well versed in complicated procedures and the like via inwork training modules. There is certainly scope for degree-level nurses but I think a one size fits all training regime does a disservice to nurses, potential nurses and patients.
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