Sunday, January 16, 2011

Knowledge and enquiry

Sixth form 1979 - I am back row 4th from the left
Last week I attended the sixth form open evening at my eldest son's school. It was an opportunity for prospective students to learn more about the courses on offer, and for embarrassing parents to ask questions of the teachers.

I was impressed but not surprised. It's an excellent school with enthusiastic teachers, a strong academic record and a sense of community support - it is a model of good State education. And the presentations reflected that ethos, showcasing a wide range of options and a history of examination success. Students in the sixth form are expected to achieve university entrance and encouraged to consider their A-levels as the first significant step towards a future career. One presentation (notably on economics) went so far as to show the earning potential of economists!

But for all its excellence, the evening reinforced a concern I have held for some time - that we increasingly regard secondary eduction (particularly at the higher end) almost exclusively in terms of career path. Is there, I often wonder, any place in modern eduction for the subjects themselves - for the intrinsic worth in learning and knowledge as way to enhance our lives?

I am not being naive here, I recognise that career choices are an important consideration; what concerns me is the disproportionate emphasis that schools place on it - which I also believe is misplaced, and, to a some extent, misunderstood by those who work in education. For in practice, business pays much less regard to the particularities and intricacies of CVs that educators are apt to become obsessed with.

My father in law is a good example; a highly intelligent educator, he spent his working life trying to  improve standards and maximise the potential of his pupils; in retirement he is the Chair of Governors of a successful secondary school. And yet whenever we discuss the choices facing my boys, it is invariably couched in terms of university applications and future CV. It took an enormous effort of will on his part to accept that my middle son might justifiably drop languages at GSCE - regardless that my son hated them and wanted to study more humanities options - because he considered universities to value them in the application process.

This trait passes on to pupils and is reinforced by parents, eager for their children to succeed in life - but measuring 'success' almost entirely in terms of academic grades and future material reward. I had an interesting conversation with my son's girlfriend this weekend, who explained that her fourth choice at A-level was going to be Spanish.  Her reasoning wasn't that she loved Spanish, or that she had any particular wish to discover Spanish culture, language or literature (though she may well do); it was  because Spanish would make her stand out, add a different twist to her core subjects of maths and science - and because after university it might open career opportunities as it was so widely spoken worldwide.

These are not bad motives, but they lack a certain soul. It no longer surprises me that most of the graduates I meet at work have no interest in a continuing involvement with the subjects they studied. A large number of them gave up any intrinsic interest at eighteen, opting for courses like Business Studies and Logistics - a strategy entirely motivated by career.

Almost all of my immediate work peers are well educated, successful professionals; typical I'd say, of a large commercial organisation. I like these people; I am one of them, albeit I'm considered a little different, often described as an 'intellectual' as if it were a mildly pitiful affliction. Yet despite the  shallow banter of most Monday mornings, if you probe, you find they each have interests which extend beyond the banalities of football and TV panel games - though often they are hidden, repressed even. Maybe it is something about the pressure of work - perhaps to them work is wholly intellectually satisfying, 'enough in itself ' - for despite their interests there is a decided lack of what I can best term 'active enquiry'.

Business culture does not help here either. Most 'personal development' at work is almost exclusively business related and spoon fed - it fails to see the value in wider personal study or interests; or if it does, it struggles to measure and support them over time. Anyone who has attended a business creativity course will know what I mean - as if creativity can somehow be taught through a series of models and techniques. My suggestion that to encourage greater creativity we should allow staff to attend art or science classes at the local college was rejected as impractical, bordering on the silly - typical of a creative type to suggest that!

Perhaps it has always been this way? Certainly, there was never some golden age when large sections of society, loved and sought knowledge ahead of the daily necessities of life. But there certainly have been times and places when knowledge and self development was more valued for itself - the history of the North Wales quarry workers for example; their penny subscriptions helping to found Bangor University. In contrast, so many of the people I meet -educated people with more options and opportunities that at any time in history - appear uninterested in pursuing academic interests; they made it to university, they're doing well in their careers - why do more?

I appreciate there is a danger here of being intellectually snobby, of rating my own values too highly on the measure of competing virtues. I recognise too that progression to university and career prospects are tangible motivators for parents and pupils alike. Beyond that, the demands of work and family are hard; time is precious. And there are many people, particularly in middle to later life, who return to their interests and with vigour and passion - education they quote, is wasted on the young.

My sons attend an excellent school; I'm sure they will succeed and that their education will in no way be wasted. But it saddens me that such a successful school is still not confident enough to emphasise, at least a little more fully, that the best reason to study physics, history, philosophy, art... lies not in university entrance and career prospects, but in their intrinsic value; in the deeper understanding of the world they give us - and the lifelong joy that a sense of enquiry can bring.


  1. I was fortunate that my parents allowed me to make my own choices at school - as long as I wasn't bumming around, they didn't mind. As a consequence I chose subjects I liked. I think I have suffered a little for not having a career plan but feel more satisfied with the knowledge I have gained than those who limited themselves to a single track.

  2. It's a sad difference I've seen between primary and secondary education. The fun of learning gets progressively squeezed out the higher up the secondary school ladder you go.

    I almost gave up in the first year of 6th form. I hated the 'sausage machine' mentality that university was the only goal worth striving for. I gave up chemistry in the first week (I was studying 5 subjects) because it no longer interested me. My dad was furious because he saw it as dramatically reducing my university options. I chose a very varied degree in the end because I couldn't bear to drop any of the subjects I was interested in (and it meant I could escape from home).

    I still regret not taking English A level (even though I enjoyed the subject and my teacher was extremely keen for me to continue) because it didn't fit with the other subjects I'd chosen. AS levels would have been ideal for me - thank goodness there was General Studies at the time!

  3. I was lucky...the subjects that interested me were those I would need for the career I had in mind...but the school placed emphasis on one main goal, learning how to learn - and that emphasis has been a precious gift down the years.

  4. My parents thought it was a marvellous opportunity when I passed the 11+ but our school majored on the academic subjects which left me completely numb with boredom. The only things I learned at school that were of any use to me, were how to spell and write nicely :-o
    I'm sure I have spent more time in Adult Ed.

  5. 'Academic' achievement beyond O levels used to be separate from, indeed irrelevant to, career achievement. That was why universities were for the minority - i.e. those few who actually had and would sustain any kind of intellectual interest. Even to me it seems strange that university has now become the perceived route to a good career, as opposed to an alternative in many ways.

    A few years ago when I taught undergraduates philosophy, I am happy to say that those who had been through the A level 'sausage machine' begged me to teach them how to think instead of how to pass exams. They fully recognised the difference and genuinely valued learning for learning's sake. I hope it's not only philosophy students who can do this. The fact that so many students feel they are being put through a qualification-producing factory process should be indication enough that it is unsatisfactory.

  6. It's a difficult conundrum. I ended up with a degree that has little or no impact on my life now and sometimes I wonder whether it was worth it. After all, the sum total of my education is that I am a stay-at-home mother. I could have left school at 16 for that!

    Then again, as my friend's mother said, there is a great value in having an educated mother, and I hope that rubs off on my children.

    (I should also state that I don't plan to be a SAHM for ever, but for now it is the right thing to do.)

  7. I think we only look on learning as something to enrich our lives when we are older, when the pressure is off to impress/placate teachers and parents, to gain good grades so we can follow the next step onto university and therefore the career path we want to follow (or perhaps in some cases parents want us to follow?). When we are older and learning can be for fun and pleasure, and not any of the above reasons. Then learning seems more fun, then I think we actually take in more of what we learn, and a lot of that has perhaps to do with the fact we had more choice in the matter, more say. We chose to do a course because we simply wanted to learn more about a subject, not gain another qualification which may or may not be any good. Courses can be chosen as leisure courses, not leading to a bit of paper courses.
    I left school at 15 in 1965, with nothing barring my secretarial qualifications. Now I am older, have more time, I can study for pleasure and leisure, and I love it. I am more receptive I think, even though never going to be an intellectual or clever clogs.

  8. I was reading Maggie's post and the point she makes that we 'only look on learning as something to enrich our lives when we are older, when the pressure is off...'
    I can't say that schooldays, or university days come to that, were the happiest of my life but I can still remember the great pleasure, the rush, that learning something new would give.
    I agree with her though, that it's great to have the time to learn to choose what to learn, with no other pressures.

  9. Education is wasted on the young isn't that what they say? I don't think education is ever wasted it should be a lifelong pursuit in my opinion. I studied with the OU (and paid for it myself as an adult while working). And did a nursing degree and obviously 'worked' through that.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your views on the school's attitude but their hands are tied I guess. It's all a bit of an exam machine nowadays. Sad isn't it?

    Standards have dropped so much but I had better not get started on that as it is a hoby horse of mine. I was lucky enough to pass the eleven plus and go to a good grammar school; quite honestly I believe anyone younger than me has suffered from the dumbing down of the state education system.

  10. Sorry I mis-typed hobby! I really can spell, it's the only thing I excel at :-) thanks to my education.

  11. I completely agree that learning to think critically and knowledge are the best rewards of higher education rather than passing tests.

    We've become too measurement-centered, all test, very little learning in the long run.

  12. I agree with Fly's comment.

    I remember that in my case, a broad-based 'O' level education was replaced overnight by a highly focused science-based set of 'A' levels. My choices were governed by my aptitude, and their value towards a future career, rather than inherent interest they held for me. (As an aside, I had great difficulty at the time in distinguishing between the pleasure inherent in a subject and the pleasure of doing well in it)

    However, studies in other subjects that were brutally terminated have proved to be a foundation of pleasure for me in later life, when the pressure is reduced. My junior school 'Bonjour Line' French lessons were the foundation of my life in France, the poetry has been a springboard for other investigations, and so on. But I do find it hard to forgive a complete absence of any education in 20th century European history.

    Perhaps the ages 10 - 16 is when we have the luxury of the time to learn for pleasure. Other pressures take over after that.

    The ideal of course, is to find something you love doing, and then find someone who will pay you to do it.

  13. A very interesting read. One of the key achievements in my life was persuading my Headmaster at Sixth Form College to change the timetable for the 1,000 strong school so that I could study Biology A level together with French and English. Because it was not a 'normal' combination of subjects, the timetable hadn't allowed for it. I insisted that I should not be denied my intellectual desire to dissect a dogfish after a struggle with Shakespeare or the use of the subjunctive in French simply because it 'didn't fit'.

    In a way it summed me up. I have never fitted into boxes. I have always been, in part at least, an outsider, just quietly doing 'my own thing'. I loved Biology just as much as I loved languages and literature. I did not feel it was right that I should be intellectually 'boxed' - especially at such a young age and with no real idea of what I wanted my career to be. I simply wanted to study subjects that I found interesting and stimulating. I had considered studying medicine, but had ruled it out on the basis that it meant a huge commitment at too young an age, when I had all these other interests which I also wanted to explore. But that didn't mean that I didn't want to continue learning about Biology. To this day, because the subject interests me so much, I swear I remember more about my Biology A level than I do my French degree (which was overly literature based when it was actually the language that interested me most - no surprise that french linguistics turned out to be my best paper despite having virtually no formal tuition in it due to a drunken and slightly mad tutor!). I based my knowledge on my own experience and observations.

    And you see, it was my insistence on doing Biology A level which got me into Oxford University. It turned out to be my best grade at A level and on the back of that I decided to give Oxbridge a go. Again, my 7th term tutor told me not to bother - and if I insisted I should at least apply to a girls only college. No thanks - I did 5 years at an all girls secondary school and felt I had 'served my time' in that department!

    So, I got in - thanks to an interview where I was allowed to be myself rather than a stupid one where you are expected to intellectually 'posture'. And the thing that I most got out of that Oxford education was the ability to be a free thinker. You are not learning by rote and regurgitating. You are actively being encouraged to form your own ideas - and learn how to set them out and justify them. It is a fantastic skill to learn.

    And now here I am, aged 47, studying for my City and Guilds Practical Gardening Certificate. Not anything much to shout about really - but the best bit is learning again. It is wonderful to be able to deepen my horticultural knowledge and have many of the intuitive areas of my gardening skills now backed up by facts.

    No, you are never too old to learn. Yes, education can be wasted on the young. Yes, it is too career based and systematic these days. Passion for a subject (as my A level Biology teacher had, as did my A level English teacher - I will never forget how he taught me King Lear, sometimes with tears in his eyes) is the most important aspect of learning. Without that, it is almost pointless.

    Apologies for the essay!!!