The Standing Invitation

A Degree in What?

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In recent years in this country there has been a proliferation in the number and variety of courses taught in universities. Many of my parents’ generation have been disquieted by this. Do we really need to have people with degrees in plumbing? Furniture making? Golf course management?

It’s an interesting question. Specialising in any subject requires study, but what is it that makes one specialism suitable for teaching in a university, and one not? What is it that makes a degree in English, psychology or physics seem reasonable, but a degree in motor maintenance seem unnecessary?

My own pet theory derives from a belief that universities and schools are institutions designed, intentionally or not, to protect the young from capitalism.

Some subjects do seem more suited to university study than others. What does this suitability correlate with? Is it perceived usefulness to society? Hardly. The differences in figures for employment in the first six months of graduating between English literature students and physicists tells us that these subjects are valued very differently by society, even though anybody could tell you that the place to get at good each of these subjects is in a university. A skilled plumber can command a much better salary than an English graduate, but few people seem to think that plumbing is something to study in university.

I also don’t believe suitability correlates with knowledge of one’s discipline. Does someone who spends three years studying English or physics know more than someone who spent the same time studying motor mechanics? I can’t believe it necessarily follows. I’m not even sure the question makes sense. I wouldn’t ask a hairdresser to calibrate a particle accelerator; but then, I wouldn’t ask a physicist to cut my hair, either.

The crucial difference, I think, is this: that a bad furniture maker can just about get away with making bad furniture, for less, and in so doing learn how to make good furniture, for more; but a bad physicist, or a bad specialist in mediaeval Dutch, is of no use to anyone. It is a question of apprenticeship, growth, and survival in a hostile world.

Capitalism is corrosive, and markets, though necessary and important, are dangerous places for the inexperienced to play. We do not throw children out onto the street to fend for themselves in the name of free markets. We protect them, educate them, to give them the skills they will need to make themselves useful. At eighteen, people leave school wanting to pursue different careers. In some of these careers, it is possible to start with nothing and learn the job on the go; in others, a few years’ more training is needed before the person is ready to start. Universities – all education, in fact – should be a safe haven where the young are able to develop the skills they need to contribute to society in future, without feeling the tidal forces of markets. It worries me that this may not continue to be the case.


Written by The S I

July 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , , ,

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