Education should be wide-ranging, not just prepare students for the job market…

Just before the beginning of their school holidays I went to see my two Australian grandsons taking part in a series of dance performances staged by their Brisbane primary school. My guess is that most of the students who took part will not go on to glittering careers as dancers, but that of course was not what the performances were about. What they did was to provide a reminder that education should be wide-ranging.

A couple of weeks before travelling to Australia I had been appalled by the traditional annual determination by commentators to pour cold water on student celebrations of success in their school examination results. The message is always that the examinations have been dumbed down (demonstrated by the fact that more students get high grades), that the education is not fitting the students for employment, that many emerge from schools lacking basic skills.

I am no expert in education, but it does not require much expertise to see how deflating this kind of thing is to young people who have worked hard, and who want to celebrate their achievements.

Rising standards

Many points made by the commentators do not bear close analysis. Why, for instance, should we be surprised that standards rise? We would not argue that speeds achieved now by athletes — which make the four-minute mile seem almost slow — are a sign of dumbing down. We would not conclude that young people using modern technology to communicate with each other are an indication of lowering of standards because they do not write letters.

This is not to argue that everything is right in the educational world. There are plenty of instances of people who do not express themselves accurately and clearly, whose utterances are full of jargon, and who misuse punctuation. (Many of these instances, incidentally, are found among representatives of the generations who are so scathing about today's students.)

My big concern is about the purpose of education, not only its quality. There has been an increasing tendency to see it solely as training for employment. That is surely not its only function. Training of the mind is crucially important. And even when one considers training for employment, education is an enabling, not a completing, process.

Think, for example, of my UK generation, when a far lower proportion of the population than now attended universities. Many of our contemporaries took up on leaving school occupations which now would usually involve a period at university, for example as accountants and solicitors. The change is a reflection of the changing educational scene. It is not an indication of dumbing down.

I always recall with pleasure a meeting of small engineering firms, that I arranged when I ran the Cambridge University Careers Service. They had been grumbling that our graduates did not apply to them. One main reason was that they offered dull jobs, but I did not want to alienate them, and arranged the meeting to discuss the issue. I was delighted when, in response to one of the employers who moaned that, on the rare occasions when one of our graduates did apply he (yes it was he) had not been trained to do the job on offer, the then head of the University Engineering Department declared: “Our job is to teach people how to solve problems that you and I do not yet know exist, not to train them in your obsolete techniques.”

Not just an investment

I was encouraged by an article in a recent issue of The Australian, by Tim Soutphommasane. A central point in it was that “there is a danger when we see learning in narrow terms, when we view education as nothing more than an investment in 'human capital' “. Schools and universities, he declared, are places where we should encourage learning for its own sake.

Hear, hear to that. Of course education should prepare people for employment. Of course it is distressing when young people find that the job market is dire. They might just be able to raise a smile at a wry remark made in the early 1950s by the late Sir Robert Wood, a classicist who was Principal of the University College (now University) of Southampton. “The advantage of a classical education”, he said, “is that it teaches you to do without the money it makes you unable to acquire”. Classicists have always been eminently employable (and are generally good at expressing themselves clearly without jargon), but he was making a real point about the purpose of education.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

Keywords: education