A friend at my Oxford college once told me that their father had been described as “the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire”. I can’t remember if I realised the significance at the time, but a few years later I started to understand that phrase more fully, when I worked as a librarian at Plymouth College of Further Education.
We didn’t have agricultural engineers there, but we did have a construction department. I was responsible for liaising with them and going along to departmental meetings. It was clear from how those construction lecturers talked at the time that they felt looked down on by the rest of the college. And at the bottom of the construction department hierarchy, below the plumbers and the carpenters and electrical engineers, were the bricklayers and the staff who taught them. The brickies were the least academic students of all, the ones who needed the most help from the remedial maths and English teachers.
But then, at some point, I got to see photos of some of their final-year projects and they were amazing. There were people making curves in brickwork that I couldn’t entirely believe were possible and a lot of other impressive structures. These students, many barely literate young men, had a skill that I could never possibly match (despite the fact that I already had two degrees).
That was when my educational philosophy really expanded, beyond my previous default assumption that doing lots of qualifications made me a better person in some nebulous way. In Plymouth it dawned on me that the key role of (non-compulsory) education at all levels was finding the best course for a particular learner so they could develop the skills that mattered to them and lead a more fulfilling life. And it also reminded me that any job that benefited others was worthwhile and should be done well. (That probably came easier to me, having been raised as a child on George Herbert’s idea of any task as potentially “divine“).
Ever since, the endless debates about “vocational” as against “academic” education have seemed rather futile: it depends on what the learner wants to do. You can learn Japanese because you want to work for Toyota or watch Noh plays or read manga, and they’re all perfectly reasonable justifications. There are a few subjects you may have to study that you don’t really want to, like those brickies having to scrape through basic maths (and school children having to follow a basic curriculum), but the courses adults should be taking are what they want to learn, because they probably won’t gain much from other education.
I think that having this broad view of education has helped me avoid some common pitfalls. If you’ve spent almost all your life studying history, for example, as some of my friends have done, and you’ve benefited from it personally, it’s easy to start presuming that everyone should study history. There’s an added pressure when your continued employment as a lecturer depends on enough people studying a subject at university. But if you take a wider perspective, the question becomes whether a specific type pf course is the right one for that particular student to study at that particular time. If they would gain more personally from a different subject or one at a different level, we ought to be steering them towards that instead.
But equally, appreciating and valuing vocational education doesn’t mean rejecting academic education or presuming that it’s only for a select few. For a short time I taught history at Birkbeck, where mature students, often without previous qualifications, can study for degrees. I still remember the pleasure I felt when some of the weaker students improved in their essay writing or had a revealing comment to add in a discussion. Ranganathan’s second law of librarianship is: “Every reader his or her book”. In the same way, maybe we should be thinking about “Every student their course”.
And perhaps, too, “Every worker their job.” I never met my friend’s father but being the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire strikes me as an honourable and admirable vocation. I’ve tried, with my own child, to make sure that I didn’t push them onto an academic path and to make it clear that if they wanted to become a hairdresser or a plumber or a nursery nurse or some other relatively non-academic career I would be fine with that. (Although I admit that education is sufficiently important to me that I’d have wanted them to be a really well-trained and fully-qualified hairdresser, plumber, etc). As it turns out they’re currently aiming for a more academic, but relatively practical career in computing. But it’s only by keeping these basic principles in mind, valuing all kinds of education/training and all kinds of jobs that we can put together a society that works better for all of us.