Gary Day

December 3, 2004

Although we need to prepare youngsters for employment, we also need to educate them in the art of living

As I write, highly trained demolition experts are knocking down my university. Well, not quite. It's only one building and it's part of a massive redevelopment plan. Shame really. Not the redevelopment, of course, but the fact that I can't use the roar of JCBs, the crash of concrete and the pall of dust as a metaphor for the state of education today.

Transition is just not spectacular, though that doesn't make it any less worrying. Take the Tomlinson report. On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable document. Its authors are rightly anxious about the experience of 14 to 19-year-olds. They note that "too few young people are properly equipped for work" and that "too few vocational qualifications meet the needs of learners and employers". Apparently that's why kids are "disengaged", not just from school but from wider society. Nothing to do with class, the crassness of celebrity culture, the false enchantments of consumerism or even the rigidly prescriptive curriculum. No, it's because they're desperate to be taught time management. How depressing to see the classroom as little more than a corporate womb.

The report pays lip service to the needs of individuals, but its dominant idiom is grindingly utilitarian. How could it be otherwise when Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, asked its authors to pay "particular attention" to "vocational learning" when "formulating (their) proposals". And so, predictably, employers are to have a key role in what schools teach. This may prepare students to follow foundation degrees but it creates a spiritual vacuum that can easily be exploited. I recently overheard a student say that "fascism wasn't that bad".

Now I am not suggesting that young people shouldn't learn practical skills. I still twitch at the prospect of having to change a plug. What I am saying, as a matter of urgency, is that we all seem to accept that we are not members of a society but employees of UK plc.

This impression was confirmed when I attended a debate called "Plumber versus Philosopher". Doesn't that word "versus" speak volumes? On the panel were a vice-chancellor, a Guardian journalist, a director of BT and Mike Tomlinson himself. But no one from secondary education. It would only have spoilt things to have had someone who knew what they were talking about.

Anyway, Tomlinson kicked off proceedings with the observation that young people are "our most important resource". Pardon me? Resource? We are talking about children here, not iron ore or wind power. If you describe people in such terms, you are basically saying that they can be exploited - which, come to think of it, most of us are.

The Tomlinson report aims to help youngsters develop their potential, but this simply means preparing them to accept working long hours for low pay in dead-end jobs. Practical activity is always the English answer to spiritual malaise. And there is some virtue in that. But you can take things too far. The BT woman shone as she described how her employees carried the corporate brand into their private life.

I wasn't quite sure what that meant until, a couple of days later, I saw a picture of an Apple employee who had his hair cut in the shape of the said fruit. Is this what we've come to? The company as the substitute for the community? But when has the company ever cared about the community? Remember the miners? The steelworkers? And it is still happening today.

Let's take a company at random. BT for instance. In March last year staff protested outside its call centres about jobs being exported to India. My point is that we can't model society wholly on the values of business. And so we must look elsewhere for inspiration.

What about the visionary strain in English culture that runs from William Langland to D. H. Lawrence and beyond? I'm not suggesting that we can find the answer to our numerous social ills - including the fact that no one wants to be either a plumber or a philosopher - in the poetry of Blake, but we will find a deeper understanding of what is at stake there than we will in the recent spat between the two Charlies.

So yes, we need to prepare youngsters for employment, but we also need to educate them about those traditions that deal with the art of living.

Teaching skills won't stop bullying, discrimination or cure boredom. But try explaining that to policymakers who pronounce that "the age of enlightenment is over".

Still, if my university thinks it's worthwhile to restore historical landmarks as part of its redevelopment, then all may not be lost. These same policymakers also say that "universities are going to look very different in five years' time". Oh, I do hope so.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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