Education is supposed to make you rich, not wealthy

Education is supposed to make you rich, not wealthy
Simon Barnes, The Times, July 16, 2007
If you happen, as I do, to be chief sportswriter of The Times, you will get a lot of letters from young people wondering how to get a job that seems – quite correctly – to combine a reasonable amount of money and prestige with a complete lack of any need to grow up.

Did you get a degree in journalism? Or sports studies? Is that what I should do, get a degree in sports studies and journalism? Or what? I have, over the years, evolved a reply. You have a choice, I say. You could either spend three years reading Shakespeare and Joyce, or three years reading me. Work it out for yourself.

My nephew failed to take this advice. “It was even worse than reading you for three years. It was all tomes on the history of journalism.” Well, you’ve got to make a course last three years, haven’t you? So you fill it with stuff that’s neither interesting nor useful.

I read English language and literature, which doesn’t prepare you for any career whatsoever. It is, however, jolly interesting, being about absolutely everything you could ever want it to be about. And I have been thinking about the purpose of education rather a lot lately, since on Friday, to the amazement and amusement of my friends, especially those I knew at university, I am to be made an honorary doctor of letters by my alma mater, the University of Bristol.

“You want either a first or a fourth. There is no value in anything between. Time spent on a good second is time thrown away.” So said Cousin Jasper in Brideshead Revisited, but alas, a fourth-class degree was unavailable to me. I took a third. This is one of the two best degrees available, though in fairness I should point out that I have never heard that view from someone with a first.

The reason I took a third was not through lack of interest in the subject. On the contrary, I read obsessively throughout my time at Bristol. I can remember reading Flaubert for the first time, and being struck by a thunderbolt: oh brave new world that has such writers in it! Others I encountered, read and discussed endlessly, include Virgil, Homer, Dante, D. T. Suzuki, Basho, Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, Bob Dylan, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, William Burroughs, Jorge Luis Borges. And if that list is a little patchy in terms of quality, that’s growing minds for you.

But as you will notice, few of those count as English literature, and those that do were too recent to be part of my course. I read some of the stuff that was actually on the course as well: but by no means all. It seemed more relevant to pursue the meaning of life by means of the written word. This inevitably included a million wrong turnings: Carlos Castaneda (fun but silly), Kahlil Gibran (God, no) and Jonathan Livingston Seagull (no, not even for a minute).

None of us was reading for marks. It was an adventure, and the tutors and professors were largely sympathetic to this attitude: I attended seminars on Dylan and Burroughs, which were no help at all for the degree. What mattered was being thrilled by literature, by great ideas and words, words, words. Turning me loose among all these books was like locking up a lush in a brewery.

It was a time when you could discover a new poet, meet a lifelong friend, fall in love and completely alter your world view, all within a single term; and then do it all again next term. I never, for one minute gave thought to what I would do to earn my living. Nor was this view peculiar to the English Department.

Education has changed course since then. Those poor young people at university nowadays send me their CVs and have five-year plans and targets and loans to pay. For them, education is about transforming themselves into an effective economic unit.

Education should be wild, exciting, intoxicating. Engineers, medics and lawyers must of necessity modify that view, but only to an extent. These days, more and more tertiary education establishments specialise in courses that look like a short-cut to a sexy job: you can study sport, or journalism, or television, or pop music, even fashion, for God’s sake. I imagine educationists sitting around a table: “Let’s have a course in sports journalism! They’ll love it! They’ll come flocking in! Brilliant idea! Carried unanimously.”

Then some awkward fellow asks: “Yes, but what are we actually going to teach them?” Ugly silence. “Ah, yes . . . now there you may have hit on the one snag in whole thing . . . but never mind, let’s go ahead and do it anyway.”

The error – the heresy – is to think that the entire purpose of education is to get you a better job: that the entire function of an individual life is to make as much money as possible. No one said to me, read Finnegans Wake and you’ll make a bloody fortune; that’s the whole point of reading the damn thing.

It’s a terrible shame, and I feel horribly sad for the people who must go through it all, carrying the burden of economic expectation rather then the spirit of exploration and adventure. We were all too busy trying to suss out the meaning of life to be sidetracked by such side-issues as careers, until the time came to meet reality head on. That hasn’t stopped a number of old university friends from being conspicuously successful.

The purpose of modern education is to make you a more wealthy person. But when I read English at Bristol, the idea was that you ended up a richer person.

It worked, too.