What was the point in that project on Tibetan Buddhism I put so much effort into at 15? I’ve never been to Tibet, worked beside a Buddhist colleague or been called upon to identify a prayer flag at short notice. What was the point in that physics A-level my friend had to work so hard on, when her other subjects were history and politics and she already knew she wanted to be a lawyer? Some of you will already be answering the first one: learning about someone else’s religion is never a waste of time. You’ll be using words like empathy, understanding, cultural sensitivity. The physics A-level may be puzzling you, some will even have decided there was no point in it, but I disagree.
People have always argued that, at least for some, education should be tailored to work. Whether they were saying that women only needed to study cookery and the Bible in order to fill their children with dinner and morals, or that the working class had no need of higher education, they were constant in their views that some forms of education were a luxury, and luxuries are reserved for a chosen few. The rest should identify as early as possible what they’re going to spend their life doing, and only be taught things that are directly relevant. Anything else, these opinionated citizens declared, would be a waste. I think they’re plain wrong, but even if they’re not – how do you decide what’s relevant?
With hindsight, a recently retired person could perhaps look back over their working life and – if they can still remember everything they studied over the years – pinpoint which subject knowledge never came in useful. It would have been much harder for them to predict that answer when they left formal education, forty or fifty years earlier, because it’s hard to know exactly how a working life will pan out. I defy them, at either end of their career, to identify the parts of their education that had no benefit whatsoever.
If education was genuinely to prepare students for working life, all exams would be open book and most of them would be team-based. It’s a rare job indeed that requires a lone worker to have all relevant information constantly at their fingertips, no reference materials allowed. Literature would be stripped from the school curriculum as English lessons concentrated on business correspondence or how to write succinct instructions. Future scientists would be denied history lessons and almost no-one would study art or music. What a narrow, dreary experience that would be.
Society benefits when its citizens have access to a broad education: school subjects that may not seem directly applicable or university courses that aren’t as role-focused as medicine, dentistry or architecture. Allowing students to learn about the possibilities in the world, the triumphs of human endeavour and how we reached our current state prepares the ground for future innovation and lateral thinking. It also allows society to learn from past mistakes. Would we have as many politically conscious, environmentally aware citizens ready to hold the authorities to account if they had all been trained for the world of work and nothing else?
Of course, it’s holding the authorities to account that makes governments dislike the idea of a wide education for all, particularly if they are paying for their citizens to receive that education. In England, where the university tuition fee argument still rages in newspaper columns and online forums, two popular versions of fee arrangements are repeatedly put forward. One is the current reality, where all tertiary-level students (including doctors and nurses who partly train on the job) incur more debt than my first mortgage. In other words the government pays for no-one, and education is seen as a personal, self-contained commodity, as though none of us benefit from our neighbours becoming engineers, pharmacologists or architects.
The other version, advanced by those who see a limited education budget but acknowledge that paying for the privilege of working as a trainee on a hospital ward is not right, suggests that useful degrees should be financed by the state, the rest should not. Useful here tends to mean obviously connected to a job, like law or physiotherapy – education is acceptable as long as it is seen to prepare the student for work. Arts degrees in this framework are frivolous. No matter that a history degree is seen as excellent preparation for many jobs because of the ordered thinking and research skills it entails. No matter that on this model classics, philosophy and many other degree subjects would dwindle to a trickle of people who would learn to be their lecturer’s replacement, and teach their own replacement in turn. Each subject would become a closed loop, entrenched in its ideas and never open to cross-pollination.
The original question sets up a false dichotomy, in my opinion: either students are prepared for work, or they have their minds broadened. I would argue that a broader mind is in itself a good preparation for working life, a life in which you will encounter people from different backgrounds, with different interests, and will need to adapt over several decades to many new situations and ways of working. As you’re unlikely to be able to predict exactly how your working life will unfold and therefore what specific knowledge might be useful, aiming for an education that broadens your mind seems like the best strategy.