Thoughts on a graduation

July 19, 2009 at 7:08 PM Leave a comment

On Friday I attended my eldest daughters graduation from University. She has just completed a  degree in fine art.  As an actual event it was unremarkable.  My daughter was not sure that she would attend and when we talked after said that she said had decided to go to the ceremony for the sake of us, her parents.  We of course had attended for her sake.  Ironically, for both parties it was very important.  For my daughter it marked the completion of her formal studies and the ending of a distinct phase of her life.  For me it was a chance to share in that achievement, feel very proud of her and feel that as a parent maybe I hadn’t done such a bad job. It also got me thinking about the nature of the education system and what it was for.

The most popular questions that are raised when I get into conversation about my daughters education are,  what are they studying and what are they going to do for a job.  What I find remarkable is the way those two questions have become linked together and that it seems to have become an almost universally belief  that the reason why we educated our children is so that it increases their chance of getting a good job.  In modern market terms so that they acquire human capital.  In some ways this is not surprising as over the last ten years the Blair cry of education, education, education  has been one of the things that has dominated the public policy agenda.  The point of this education is we are told, for the sake of the nation, to make us competitive in an increasingly competitive world so that we can develop a high skilled, high waged economy and all be rich.  Of course it assumes that the whole point of our existence is to be rich and that as politicians  their role is to  prepare through the formal education system our children for their future role as wealth creators on behalf of the market.

Maybe I’m just contrary, but I believe that this is not what education is about.  For me there is a a distinct difference to acquiring the basics tools of reading , writing and numeracy,  studying in order to develop an understanding of the world and  to be able to critically analyse the ideas that we are bombarded with and training  to become proficient at various tasks in order to carry out a job.  Perhaps it is because I was brought up in an era where  part of the debate about  education was the belief that some  of its purpose was to develop the student as an  individual. In Star Trek terms to be the best that you can be.

From my perspective all education is about developing an understanding of the physical world and the world of ideas. The better we understand the world we live in the better we can negotiate its pitfalls and be equipped to take our destiny in our own hand.  I believe that this was what motivated early radicals and trade unionists to agitate for universal education for all.  For them the purpose was not about equipping their fellows with the skills to make the factory owners richer,  for them the purpose was about equipping their fellow human beings with an awareness of the world so that they  could do something about the exploitation of the factory owners.

Today’s state education is more like an industry, with the emphasis on acquiring skills through defined competencies, modulated  learning and exams to check that the intended received wisdom has been assimilated and consumed. Choice is the order of the day with the subjects that students decide to  study defining their life choices.  Perhaps this compartmentalisation is why friends found it so difficult to understand my daughters migration from bio-chemistry to art during her university studies and secretly wonder why I would let my child study something which is not seen as functional in the modern economy.  In fact most arts subjects have been relegated to the fringes. It struck me during the graduation ceremony that despite  studying a subject with the potential for outlandish self expression most of the students looked like they were just about to step into a business meeting in the financial heart of the city.

I suppose I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that what we have is a miseducation system.  One that does not teach our children about the life, the world or themselves.  One that does not encourage curiosity or expose students to the excitement that can be experienced through a revelatory idea, but treats students as passive observers in a process of imprinting the things that will turn them into a useful and productive (profit making) citizens.

All I know is that we need to take responsibility for helping our children educate themselves. To convince them that knowledge doesn’t just cone from a teacher or lecturer and that they  should follow their curiosity and explore their interests no matter how esoteric.  But most of all that education equips us to act on our own agency in a complex world. That’s why the slogan of those that fought for universal access to education was



Entry filed under: Politics.

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