Last week I attended the sixth form open evening at my eldest son's school. It was an opportunity for prospective students to learn more about the courses on offer, and for embarrassing parents to ask questions of the teachers.
I was impressed but not surprised. It's an excellent school with enthusiastic teachers, a strong academic record and a sense of community support - it is a model of good State education. And the presentations reflected that ethos, showcasing a wide range of options and a history of examination success. Students in the sixth form are expected to achieve university entrance and encouraged to consider their A-levels as the first significant step towards a future career. One presentation (notably on economics) went so far as to show the earning potential of economists!
But for all its excellence, the evening reinforced a concern I have held for some time - that we increasingly regard secondary eduction (particularly at the higher end) almost exclusively in terms of career path. Is there, I often wonder, any place in modern eduction for the subjects themselves - for the intrinsic worth in learning and knowledge as way to enhance our lives?
I am not being naive here, I recognise that career choices are an important consideration; what concerns me is the disproportionate emphasis that schools place on it - which I also believe is misplaced, and, to a some extent, misunderstood by those who work in education. For in practice, business pays much less regard to the particularities and intricacies of CVs that educators are apt to become obsessed with.
My father in law is a good example; a highly intelligent educator, he spent his working life trying to improve standards and maximise the potential of his pupils; in retirement he is the Chair of Governors of a successful secondary school. And yet whenever we discuss the choices facing my boys, it is invariably couched in terms of university applications and future CV. It took an enormous effort of will on his part to accept that my middle son might justifiably drop languages at GSCE - regardless that my son hated them and wanted to study more humanities options - because he considered universities to value them in the application process.
This trait passes on to pupils and is reinforced by parents, eager for their children to succeed in life - but measuring 'success' almost entirely in terms of academic grades and future material reward. I had an interesting conversation with my son's girlfriend this weekend, who explained that her fourth choice at A-level was going to be Spanish. Her reasoning wasn't that she loved Spanish, or that she had any particular wish to discover Spanish culture, language or literature; it was because Spanish would make her stand out, add a different twist to her core subjects of maths and science - and because after university it might open career opportunities as it was so widely spoken worldwide.
These are not bad motives, but they lack a certain soul. It no longer surprises me that most of the graduates I meet at work have no interest in a continuing involvement with the subjects they studied. A large number of them gave up any intrinsic interest at eighteen, opting for courses like Business Studies and Logistics - a strategy entirely motivated by career.
Almost all of my immediate work colleagues are well educated, successful professionals; typical I'd say, of a large commercial organisation. I like these people; I am one of them, albeit I'm considered a little different, and am often described as an 'intellectual' as if it were a mildly pitiful affliction. Yet despite the shallow banter of most Monday mornings, if you probe, you find they each have interests which extend beyond the banalities of football and TV panel games - though often they are hidden, repressed even.
Maybe it is something about the pressure of work - perhaps to them work is wholly intellectually satisfying, 'enough in itself ' - for despite their interests there is a decided lack of what I can best term 'active enquiry'.
Business culture does not help here either. Most 'personal development' at work is almost exclusively business related and spoon fed - it fails to see the value in wider personal study or interests; or if it does, it struggles to measure and support them over time. Anyone who has attended a business creativity course will know what I mean - as if creativity can somehow be taught through a series of models and techniques. My suggestion that to encourage greater creativity we should allow staff to attend art or science classes at the local college was rejected as impractical, bordering on the silly - typical of a creative type to suggest that!
Perhaps it has always been this way? Certainly, there was never some golden age when large sections of society, loved and sought knowledge ahead of the daily necessities of life. But there certainly have been times and places when knowledge and self development was more valued for itself - the history of the North Wales quarry workers for example; their penny subscriptions helping to found Bangor University. In contrast, so many of the people I meet -educated people with more options and opportunities that at any time in history - appear uninterested in pursuing academic interests; they made it to university, they're doing well in their careers - why do more?
I appreciate there is a danger here of being intellectually snobby, of rating my own values too highly on the measure of competing virtues. I recognise too that progression to university and career prospects are tangible motivators for parents and pupils alike. Beyond that, the demands of work and family are hard; time is precious. And there are many people, particularly in middle to later life, who return to their interests and with vigour and passion - education they quote, is wasted on the young.
My sons attend an excellent school; I'm sure they will succeed and that their education will in no way be wasted. But it saddens me that such a successful school is still not confident enough to emphasise, at least a little more fully, that the best reason to study physics, history, philosophy, art... lies not in university entrance and career prospects, but in their intrinsic value; in the deeper understanding of the world they give us - and the lifelong joy that a sense of enquiry can bring.
Mark writes at www.viewsfromthebikeshed.blogspot.com