Thursday, 4 November 2010

Defending a liberal education

Just as I find it particularly offensive that a tax-dodging plutocrat should get to lecture us on how to save money in the public sector I find it offensive that a bunch of middle-aged Oxbridge grads should now get to tell ordinary kids and their families that university education is a privilege that it is only fair to pay for with higher tuition fees and  student debt.

Their arguments to justify this are essentially philistine and small minded: That the main benefit of education is to bestow a competitive edge in the employment marketplace - and that this advantage needs to be paid for. And that by the laws of this market the economically useful subjects would be promoted and frivolous ones discouraged. 

This we are told is both fair and good for society as a whole. Pure fucking hypocrisy. Of the present ConDem cabinet 19 went to Oxbridge. Specifically in the big four jobs,  the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home and Foreign secretaries, all went to Oxford. And six of the cabinet studied the same distinctly 'un-practical' subject there;  PPE Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

I have a personal insight into this - and not just because my daughter is coming up to the age when she has to think about all this. Back in the days when the state still saw university education as right not a privilege, an oik like me managed to sneak under the radar into Cambridge and study the equivalent subject there. And I can let you into a secret - it was a doss: Far from being hot-housed and groomed for leadership it was a perfect subject if you didn't fancy getting up for lectures in the morning and preferred to spend your afternoons shooting pool in the JCR bar - and you could still get a very respectable degree. I  even switched to it from doing history - which was hardly onerous in the first place. I actually worked much harder when I studied afterwards for a year at the London College of Printing on a far less prestigious vocational diploma course.

I feel absolutely no need to apologise for this. In between my idling I developed myself in an environment that encouraged the broadest form of learning that had nothing whatsoever to do with the course - by undirected reading on my own initiative in the libraries and by contact with other enquiring minds. I think that constitutes the very best of what is meant by the old-fashioned term of a 'liberal' education. And I'm sure that students at unglamourous  former polytechnics studying media or gender studies - or any other of the subjects that are snootily scoffed at now - go through exactly the same journey. They come out more rounded individuals, more enquiring, more rational and altogether more open-minded than when they went in. And a civilised progressive society needs this - every bit as much as it needs the obvious doctors, engineers and scientists.

The ConDem  cabinet who yesterday put higher education just a bit further out of the reach of working class families know this full well. After all, it's why they studied humanities themselves. So they are not actually philistines - just  hypocrites and vicious snobs - they don't think that it should be for the likes of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ars gratia artis - (from when some of us learnt Latin . . . ) should be the way to approach higher education, even if someone wants to become a surgeon - not the cramming it all into two years or the completely vocational rot touted by those who should know better. Education should be a right for all - not something only for those who can afford it. I really hope my kids go to university and doss around, go drinking and avoid lectures - they'll come out as much better people for it, regardless of the subjects they take.