Friday, 19 September 2008

Education for education's sake

Next week, I am going to become a university student again. I am tremendously happy and excited about this, despite anxiousness occasionally punctuating my overwhelmingly positive feelings ("what if I'm not clever enough?", "what if I don't make any friends?", "what if I don't understand anything?" - on occasion I feel as though starting a Masters is akin to starting primary school). The three years I spent working towards my undergraduate degree, whilst not always perfect, were truly brilliant; they were my halcyon days, upon which I look back with immense fondness and remember as some of my happiest times.

The most persistent facet of my nervousness about this new experience boils down to the fact that this is the first time education has ever felt like a conscious direction of my choosing, and consequently, a significant commitment. My schooling up to the age of sixteen was compulsory, and continuing on to do A-Levels at sixth form might as well have been; it never felt optional. The same pretty much goes for university: the idea of not going to university wasn’t just an unlikely decision, it was a completely absent one. My peers were all, unquestionably, going on to further study after Sixth Form, everyone in my immediate family had gone to university, almost all of my cousins, uncles, aunts. I feel fortunate in that I was undoubtedly going to have the opportunity to go, and I don't think the fact that it was "the done thing" made me appreciate that opportunity any less - well, not significantly so.

However, signing up to postgraduate education feels different. It suddenly feels more serious, like a weighty commitment, and a completely personal choice that I've been under no obligation or expectation to make. It's the first time I've ever fully appreciated the cost of fees, the workload, felt the loss of income, worried about paying my rent and bills, questioned whether I am just being self-indulgent or fanciful.

Arts Tower, University of Sheffield

This is the only time I have had the feeling of truly undertaking education for education's sake. I am both terrified and passionately positive about the thought of having no real "plan" for what happens when I come out at the end of this course. I've only recently come around to the idea of how utterly liberating that feeling is, and how fantastic it feels to be doing something solely because I want to do it, not because I'm conscious of my CV, or hankering after a better job, or because someone expects me to. I'm just doing it because I want to, I am otherwise motiveless.

I feel as though that is what real learning should be about; learning for the joy of it, with the sole motivation and aim being to acquire knowledge and experience. When I put my idealistic hat on (does it ever come off?), it feels like that is what education ought to be about. Whilst it's very difficult to disentangle other obvious benefits, I strongly believe that where possible, these extraneous benefits should never be the the primary aim. When education becomes diluted and tangled up with other things (exam results, a syllabus set in stone) in order to give superfluous benefits, it runs the risk of sapping out the fun, and rendering what should be terrific into a joyless, frustrating experience.

However, I can't help but feel that this notion of education for education’s sake is seriously at odds with the ethos of this country, and that articulating this opinion amongst the masses would result in howls of derision and possibly disgust, accompanied by mutterings about “sponging students” and “paying taxes for spoiled kids to get pissed for three years”. For as long as I can remember I have felt acutely aware of this perfunctory, means-to-an-end attitude to education, and the rife anti-intellectual sentiment that exists amongst some groups in this country. Working at a school for the past year has only increased my cynicism about our methods and motivations for educating children. Thankfully, more people seem to be cottoning on to the idea that children in the UK appear to be taught not because of the importance of imparting knowledge, expanding minds and inspiring curiosity, but to pass exams and to quantify their academic progress into numbers and letters that can neatly be listed on a job application.

What is the real purpose of these compulsory exams, to which we sacrifice a lot of our  educational freedom and enjoyment of learning? It seems that the primary aim is to gain Qualifications, which we are frequently and mindlessly reminded are unquestionably essential and important. What sorts of golden opportunities and benefits do these Qualifications qualify, exactly? It seems that they allow most adolescents to plop out from the steady conveyor belt of our educational system into some bland, uninspiring job where the whole dull cycle relentlessly repeats itself: jumping through hoops to get further up some imaginary chain that gives us benefits we are told we want, like promotions, a nice car, and a flat screen television. 

I'd like to paint a picture of how this plays out in reality. If you have Qualifications, you might be lucky enough to work in an office where you can drink as much Nescafe as you like, and be privileged enough to spend your generous twenty day holiday allowance sunning yourself at a Thomas Cook resort in Magaluf. When you’re really hitting the big time, you might get an incredible twenty five days off, and get to go on holiday to the Maldives. When you are at work you find your cubicle upgraded to an office (which you get all to yourself, you lucky thing). On the other side of the fence, if you fail to get Qualifications, you may find yourself getting your hands dirty, squatting under a car at a garage, listening to your local commercial radio station and spending your breaks sat on a curb drinking Asda Smart Price coffee and smoking a cig. Am I the only person who doesn't see a massive distinction between these lifestyles, or am I being blind in not seeing one as being obviously more valuable than the other? 

Tangents aside, when it comes to education, we aren’t in it for the journey, we are in it for the outcome. It’s much akin to a donkey with a carrot dangling in front of its nose, who sadly misses out on beautiful scenery because it has blinkers on, and at the end of this journey, it gets to dine at a trough full of fermented organic matter.

To get back to the topic at hand, it's not as though our children in this country simply do not learn for the sake of learning, it's as though there is a simmering contempt for this activity amongst the general populous. Whilst I find the cliche of the "studenty" student fairly irritating (for irrelevant social reasons), students are often viewed with derision, as though it’s ridiculous they should want to waste three years with their nose in a book when they good be earning a good, honest living, and buying themselves nice things. There is a fairly widespread contempt for people who want to learn; if you actively seek out knowledge, you might find yourself branded a “swot”, “bookish”, “uncool”, “nerdy”, “sad” and so on. I’m not commenting on pompous people who arrogantly try and show off their alleged intellect, because that actually is uncool, but your genuine, salt-of-the-earth learning-is-good types, who are often subject to such unkind commentary. It’s not as though being the recipient of any of this bile is the end of the world, what is depressing is the compulsion in so many people to perpetuate the attitudes that surround it. I’m not going to hypothesise about why I think people are motivated to have this attitude - that’s for another day - I just want to state my dissatisfaction with its existence.

Graffiti at the base of the Arts Tower, University of Sheffield

In attempt to conclude these disorganised, messy threads, I feel like we live in a society where ignorance is not just the norm, but celebrated; wishing to intellectually better yourself brands you some sort of “elitist”, questioning the status quo makes you a “clever dick”. Even universities are filled with people who seem to miss the point and see a degree as yet another product for them to consume, and who are only studying so they can booze for three years and plop out at the end into some unimaginative management position where they can cruise around in a company car, barking into a bluetooth headset connected to the latest Blackberry. The pervasive attitude is that because we don’t need to understand things we ought not to try. We don’t see pleasure in processes; we need immediate, gratifying outcomes. Why bother reading the book when you can pop to your local leisure complex and be shown the movie version?